Tried and tested approaches in research communication, by the simple fact that they’ve been done before and the bugs ironed out, are fairly low risk and can provide excellent opportunities for public engagement. In many situations they are appropriate. For example, they may meet audience expectations, so participants know what to anticipate and have chosen to engage in that particular project or event. Equally, an approach which has been used previously may in fact be new to that particular audience. So if things are working well, why should we seek out novel ways to engage participants with research? And what might be seen as a creative approach to research communication in any case?
Our new book, Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, starts from the premise that researchers, whatever your discipline, are looking to devise projects that are interesting for participants and also for you, the communicator. We argue that the process of creating engagement activities can be both intellectually stimulating and satisfying. Whether the project is physical or conceptual, you, as project creator, might even enter the state Csikszentmihalyi (1996) calls ‘flow’, a state of total concentration where you leave behind everyday life and enter a different reality. Csikszentmihalyi argues that this state of flow is what produces happiness and satisfaction. People enter this state when they are responding to a challenge (e.g. to come up with a new or novel way to communicate science) and when they have the skills to meet that challenge. Creative Research Communication is designed to help you gain the skills you need to create innovative communication and engagement projects, allowing you to enter this state of flow as you respond to the challenge of designing your own public engagement projects.
Researchers, of course, are not the only people involved in public engagement projects; and we would argue that participants can also benefit from creative approaches to research communication and may in themselves experience ‘flow’ when they become engaged and immersed in your projects. This is perhaps most evident in projects which involve the participants creating something themselves, and where they might enter a state of flow through the process or simply take pleasure in making something new themselves. Gauntlett (2011) describes this as everyday creativity:
Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something. The activity has not been done in this way by this person (or these people) before. The process may arouse various emotions, such as excitement and frustration, but most especially a feeling of joy. (Gauntlett, 2011:70)
Case studies included in the book explore examples of people forging new ideas, experiences, techniques and attitudes, as well as experiencing the familiar, like science and drama, in combined, new or different ways. As we discuss in the book, new experiences can be uncomfortable, particularly for participants who are expecting something quite different (Weitkamp, 2015), reminding us that as Csikszentmihalyi notes, reaching a state of flow can lie uncomfortably close to a state of anxiety (for example if you do not have the skills to meet the challenge) or boredom (if the challenge is not sufficient to match your skill level).
What is creativity in research communication?
Creativity doesn’t require radically new approaches, but can arise through incremental change. We might borrow ideas from other disciplines and apply them in new ways or with different audiences. Equally, we might consider how to adapt existing projects for delivery in unusual venues, such as botanic gardens or music festivals (Bultitude and Sardo, 2012). That’s why we have sought to include within the book examples from different disciplines, as well as different social and cultural contexts. Edwards (2008) suggests that creative individuals are passionate about their subjects, but willing to consider new ideas or ways of doing things. Creativity, therefore, arises when you think differently. Creative Research Communication considers this process from a variety of angles, with chapters providing the theory and practical resources, top tips and links to other materials that will assist you in creating projects in such contexts.
Creative ideas and the techniques that generate them lie on a continuum from those that fit neatly within your existing paradigm, the ‘preserving’ and ‘safe’ options, to those that challenge or ‘stretch’ your existing thinking, and the ‘risky’ or ‘extreme’ ‘paradigm breaking’ techniques, which might be ground breaking or total flops (McFadzean, 1998:311). All three approaches can inject an element of creativity into research communications; which one to choose depends on the context in which the communication will occur and the amount of time that can be dedicated to idea generation. Even a simple group conversation, if you involve people with different skills sets and outlooks, can lead to quite novel ideas. So next time you are devising a new project, or are thinking about seeking funding to communicate your research, consider whether you could inject some creativity. You might find it addictive.
By Dr Emma Weitkamp & Dr Clare Wilkinson