It's a vital question for anyone with plans to be a public communicator of science or even a good presenter in academia. The public persona you choose for yourself will shape your audience, your credibility and the way different sectors of your profession and the public perceive you.
I am fortunate to have a wonderful variety of personas to call on. Here is just a small example of speakers I can call on who are well known to reporters.
- The laconic professor from Queensland cattle country who is perfect for talking about climate and drought to the rural farming community.
- The laid-back surfie scientist. He spent his life in coastal towns and is an ocean swimmer who speaks in a voice the general public love.
- The policy mastermind world-renowned expert and whip-smart debater who will strap on the verbal or written leather and go toe-to-toe with climate change deniers. Advocacy groups love him and he is widely respected at all levels of government.
- The young expert that television cameras love, who looks cool and talks in a voice and manner the younger generations get in an instant.
- The lord of the pithy quote and telling fact who looks business people or policy makers straight in the eye and delivers complex ideas in a single sentence that can suck the air out of a room.
- The fellow who television turns into a slightly rumpled lab rat that softly delivers simple powerful lines on television but who by contrast in person or at public events is an imposing and convincing presence.
Remarkably, like many others in my trade, I had never explicitly thought about this as the creation of a public persona.
Dr Karl Braganza, the Climate Monitoring Manager from the Bureau of Meteorology, totally deserves the credit for bringing the idea of public persona to the front and centre of my thinking and getting me to recognise it as a distinct and important object for communicators.
Recently, as we prepared a workshop together for early career researchers at a national conference, he focused my mind on the idea of a public persona. It allowed me to turn the idea of personas like an object in my hand and realise that what I had been doing automatically as a part of my communication practise deserved special thinking about in isolation. It was that important.
Karl has thought deeply through the whole proposition of the public persona in his own career and for others. He described how he had been a shorts and T-shirt scientist in his early days and how he transformed himself into a presenter that talked directly to government ministers, policymakers and boards of directors in large companies by taking on a different public persona.
When he was called on to develop a profile Karl decided where he wanted to exert his influence and then developed a "persona" that allowed him to speak to that audience and be credible. His appearance was an important part of this transformation. He consciously dressed to fit in with his audience and appear authoritative.
His communications presentation at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society annual conference in Brisbane earlier this year was a masterclass on how to extert influence and how to credibly present to different audiences. Seriously, if you get the opportunity to see him talk about communication, set aside the time. Karl’s talks should not to be missed.
As we explored the idea of the public persona and how early career researchers could develop a public face that was honest and credible we found there were some recurring themes. Here are a few tips that can help you find your public self.
- Most important, start writing. Not scientific writing but something in a public space like a blog. Do it regularly. It doesn't matter if anyone reads it, writing in your own voice in a public space will actually help you get a good idea of who you are, how you speak and who your audience might be. This is the single best way to get to know your persona and become a communicator.
- Once you start to understand who you are, think about the audience that you want to grow to trust you and take you seriously. Study them. Find out what makes them tick, their common experiences, who they respect and why. Ideally choose an audience you are already familiar with through your own experiences. It is vital that your persona is honest. A manufactured fantasy creation will quickly crumble under the slightest pressure.
- Look at your appearance. Audiences make instant decisions about people according to how they look. Before you have even opened your mouth they are passing judgement. Choose your clothes and hairstyles carefully to suit your audience. Do you meet the expectations of your audience? It’s not a question about vanity, it’s credibility.
- Play to your strengths. We all have certain backgrounds, experiences, areas of knowledge and styles of speaking that give us advantages in certain situations. You may be a boffin who likes numbers but doesn't relate well to the general public. There is still a place for you — that of the statistical expert. We see these guys and gals around election time or, in my case, when weather records are broken. You would be surprised how many reporters have boffins like these on auto dial. Whatever your background or passions may be, you can guarantee you will have your moment in the media spotlight or before your peers at a conference.
Until you understand yourself and what you hope to achieve as a media communicator or even as a high-flying academic presenter among your peers you are just another hopeful lost in the communications wilderness without a map. A public persona gives you direction and makes you more than just another researcher talking about a paper - it makes you an authority.
As a communicator, this is your foundation.
So, start now. Get a blog going. Ask yourself now and every day as you grow to understand the way you communicate, who do I want to be? The answer to that question marks the route to your future.