Empowering or exasperating?

I once wrote in to my local newspaper to complain about an editor’s column about climate change. It was printed. He replied, calling me a tree-hugging, moralising, whiskey-drinking, aggressive potential stoner who uses Google to appear clever. I felt empowered: I’d hit a nerve and had my voice heard. Win!

So it was with great curiosity that I entered the session at the 2011 Science Communication Conference titled More than friends: turning online engagement into empowerment. Sitting at a round table, with butcher’s paper and a marker pen, I was taken back to my days training Green Steps. The room arrangement signalled creativity, sharing of ideas and collaboration.

Griffith's 2009 Green Steppers in a breakout session.

The 40-odd delegates first listened to the speakers (Ian, Humphrey and Aoife) give a short bio and anecdotes of their experiences with online engagement. The examples were cool. There were success stories of twitter crowd-sourcing, the tale of the Frog Blog and a challenge to a radio-hungry creationist. We then broke off into groups to share our ideas.

Wait, what? We were talking about… um, engagement? We introduced ourselves, then generated a few lists of quite obvious ‘stuff’ that sprang to our minds on the topic of online engagement. Looking at the list, we tried to think how these could be used to empower.

That last sentence is begging a question: who’s being empowered? But then, halfway through a fairly cautious group exchange, I realised I hadn’t actually thought about what is meant by the term empowerment, in any context, let alone in online science communication. That fundamental question hadn’t been clearly addressed in the session’s introductory stage.

In the dark depths of night, as I write this, a definition has formed in my mind. A person is empowered if they have the information and motivation to take action to influence or create an outcome. Let’s think about some permutations and examples of this; apologies if they’re really basic:

  • I want to catch a fish for dinner (motivation), but I don’t know how (information). I purchase a fishing guide, follow what it says, go fishing (action), catch a fish and eat it (outcome). Empowerment was created by giving information.
  • You know there’s starving children in Africa (information), and you can donate to Oxfam (action) to help the organisation help the children (outcome). However, there’s lots of other demands on your time and money. I could tell you a sad story of a young girl, to give you the motivation to donate. Empowerment was created by giving motivation.
  • I really like listening to the Short Science podcast, and want to ask host Elizabeth a science question because I’m arguing about it with my sister (motivation). However, Elizabeth just makes the show each week with no external input (NB: she doesn’t really, but let’s just pretend). One day, Elizabeth decides to allow people to call questions in (action), answers my question (information) and I win the argument (outcome)! Empowerment was created by providing a course of action and supplying information.

I could go on, but it’s a very simple model and the permutations are many. Empowerment may address only one link in the chain, or create an entire chain. While this model is simple, it’s a useful starting point for the discussion of engagement in any given situation. The other main point brings me back to the question I asked earlier. Who is being empowered, and how?

There’s lots of possible ways audiences for science communication can be empowered. I’d start by thinking of two broad kinds. The first feeds-in or feeds-back to the source of the science. The show Question Time on the BBC (Q&A in Australia) empowers the audience to ask a live panel questions and hear opinions. It allows the audience to create or shape the content of the communication. It’s fairly easy for the communicator(s) to see: comments on blogs, phone calls, @tweets and the like.

The second kind is much harder to see the results of, but potentially much more important. That’s empowering the audience to take action in their own lives. In my own experience, the Green Steps sustainability training program is a great example. The short-course teaches final year Uni students a range of practical skills in environmental auditing, communication and behaviour change, then sends them out into industry placements to put their skills into immediate action. They often have high motivation, and we give them information, a toolbox of actions and the ability to consider and set outcomes and objectives. The program also gets feedback from the students to improve itself, but that’s secondary. The trainers are some of the most enthusiastic, talented and well-trained facilitators I’ve met. Empowerment breeds engagement breeds empowerment…

Let’s snap back to the conference. Our group’s discussion was somewhat mired as we grappled with applying the idea of empowerment to Emma’s example, www.nutrition.org.uk. How can the site engage its target audience and empower them to live healthily?

What held us back was that only a few in the group could really articulate what they meant by engagement or empowerment, let alone give a good example of when they’d done it. We hadn’t been given a common reference frame from which to launch a discussion. We didn’t know what the desired outcome of the discussion was. We had vague motivation, tidbits of information and a loose activity – but, well, you can see where I’m going with this.

That’s where I think the session fell down. It lacked the strong frame and active hands necessary to achieve meaningful exchange of ideas in such a format in the hour or so we had. I’m not levelling criticism at any of the presenters in particular, but I felt miffed that what could have been a very productive session was neutered by what seemed to be a lack of experience with the medium on behalf of the organisers. Of course, I was only in one of the five breakout groups – but even beyond that, I didn’t get a sense of direction, or of reflexivity in the session as a whole.

Whenever I’ve taught using breakout groups, I make sure I have a clear structure for what the groups should be doing – or, if I leave it more open, I ensure more regular breaks to report back and see if they’re making progress. I’ve not had to apply the structure to a group of 40, especially with such a diverse group, and I’m not sure if the potential pitfalls of the session strategy were considered and planned for (I don’t know whose decision it was to run the session that way anyway).

Projects like Humphrey’s Frog Blog show that science communication online can translate to real, useful action. I’d point anyone interested to the game Urgent Evoke as an outstanding example of online empowerment. But seriously – if we want to be practitioners capable of empowering our audiences, we need to apply the principles to our own communication first!

*Note: I’m going to be collating lots of my thoughts from the conference here in the coming week or so, and would love to hear yours too. I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend from the BSA, and it was a good experience, so it feels odd to start my ‘coverage’ on such a critical note, but… well, I couldn’t sleep!

Categories: communication, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Empowering or exasperating?

  1. Pingback: Empowered! « Netgull

  2. I started writing an answer. Then I got into it and wrote a page. And then I thought, that’s too big for a comment, let’s add a couple of images and turn it into a post. So you go

  3. Jonny K

    A) That’s the first time I’ve ever heard “whisky-drinking” used as an insult, which probably betrays where I’m from.

    B) I was reading a book last week on Tony Blair’s first term as PM.It had the following great story: when he was getting a lot of negative press, he appeared on Question Time. At the end of the show, he could sense there was still a lot of negativity and frustration in the room. So, he stayed after the presenter and other panellists had gone, and the cameras had stopped rolling, and answered all their questions, to the frustration of some of his aides.

    I am reminded of this when you speak of empowerment & Question Time.

    • Good example! Even if politicians are classic obfuscators, showing a willingness to let people talk to him is a good thing to do. And I didn’t take it as much of an insult; in fact, moralising, tree-hugging and whiskey-drinking are all fairly benign, if not accurate!

  4. Great definition – powerfully compelling yet simple and clear. Cheers!

  5. Thanks Dave for the review and the deconstruction of the term “engagement”. To be fair, I would agree with you that the breakout group discussion could have been more more effectual. We had planned that element of the session thoroughly yet knew that the group would be extremely diverse, with varying audiences and varying online strategies. A certain amount of flexibility had to be built into its structure – which can always lead to certain issues.

    If you recall, and to inform those who did not attend, there were four elements to the breakout group structure. Initially, each member of the group was to share an online engagement strategy they employed (either successfully or unsuccessfully), secondly each member was to outline their ultimate empowerment goal (I’ll get back to “empowerment” later), thirdly the group were to discuss if their empowerment goals could best be served by utilising an engagement strategy employed by other members of the group (rather than the one they use themselves). Finally, the group were to decide on a new common goal for a new project and formulate an online engagement strategy for achieving that project’s empowerment goal. Ambitious, I know for a 45 minute discussion!

    The breakout sessions was never planned as a panacea of everyone’s issues or problems with using social media for engagement. It was meant as a discussion forum for sharing experiences of different methods of social media (of which there are many) in the hope of getting some new ideas to try (as I mention, we should endeavour to try to use varying forms of social media and not be afraid of failing). It was about focusing on what we, as science communicators, ultimately want our audience to be “able to do”. And then it was about discussing social media in the context of a common empowerment goal for a new project.

    I acknowledge your excellent points on facilitating group discussions and will certainly use your suggestions in the future, should I ever facilitate such a workshop again. And I acknowledge that more care should have been taken in formulating a reflective strategy for the breakout sessions. I also quite like your definition of the term empowerment, but feel you may have overcomplicating it. As we mentioned during our workshop, an individuals or organisations empowerment goal should simply be about asking 1. What do you want your audience to BE ABLE TO DO? and 2. What would your audience LIKE TO BE ABLE TO DO?. For empowerment is about enabling your audience to attain these goals and online engagement strategies can, if used effectively, provide the necessary tools. Goals should always be aspirational and it is rare that every individual’s or organisation’s empowerment goals are attained – and certainly not by using social media alone.

    Saying that, I felt where our session was strong (and I am obviously speaking purely from my own experience) was that it facilitated a more open, albeit loosely structured, discussion on social media tactics for empowerment goals than the other sessions that morning – specifically the “tyranny of the web” session, which I personally felt was divided into two polar extremes of thought. Where science communicators, from all backgrounds, can discuss openly what works and doesn’t work for them in the context of achieving their goals – reflection naturally occurs. Even the fact that you took the time to reflect on our session and your understanding of the term empowerment may well refocus your approach to utilising social media. From the discussions with the delegates in my group, I personally feel empowered to change my thinking around the issue and I hope others feel the same. Ultimately, our goal in all of this was to get people to reflect (beyond the 45 minute breakout session) on how best social media tools can be utilised best for their goals. All we can hope is that the other 40 or so delegates took the time to reflect as you and I have.

    Thanks for attending our session and thank you for providing us with your feedback.

    • Thanks Humphrey – like you said, the difficulty I had with the session led me to thinking about engagement and empowerment into the wee hours and then writing 1000 words about it. I really feel like I have come to grips with it more now. So in that respect, it worked brilliantly!

      I also thought, while writing, that as a teacher you’d probably have been the one most experienced with facilitating such a session, and now that I look back I can see the structure you had. In our group, that didn’t come through so clearly as we were progressing. That’s one of the tyrannies of real life, I suppose – sometimes discussions flow freely and well, and other times they’re a bit sticky. I’m hoping to get involved in some interesting new online/offline engagement programs in the summer and the session gave me the starting point and motivation to really think about how they might work.


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