‘Cutting to the chase’ & ‘bottom lining’ your research?

Early spring blossom

One of the things I am loving about writing a blog is thinking in a bit more detail than usual about the words and phrases we use and exploring how they have come into common parlance. Why does the lens this week fall onto ‘cutting to the chase’ and ‘bottom lining’? Well a number of reasons really, firstly the British Library has announced the winner of its competition #sharemythesis and secondly I am in the midst of reviewing conference abstracts.

Both challenging researchers in different ways to be incredibly focused in the way they communicate their research. The former requiring you to summarise the importance of your PhD in a tweet of 140 characters or less, the latter being able to communicate your research in 250 words in a way which engages the reviewer, convinces them about the quality of the work you have undertaken and encourages them to select your work to present to a wider audience.

But cutting to the chase and bottom lining is not just about character or word count it is about being able to identify and distill the essence of your work. This is as much about thinking as it is about writing.

As researchers we are required to communicate our work in many different ways. The same plot, the same journey, the same end point but different representations. Some fast paced and direct with little time for sharing the nuances and subtleties of the landscape, others conducted at a more leisurely pace with time to pause and reflect on the way, to recount the detail and share the perspective.

For this post however, let’s think about the fast and direct route, the one that cuts to the chase and presents the bottom line. In case you are wondering, the etymology of cutting to the chase? The chase scene in silent movies was the bit where all the action took place, and screenwriters often tried to prolong the build up to the big scene. Studio executives used the phrase ‘cut to the chase’ to mean ‘get to the interesting bit’, stopping messing around and get on with it. Now we use it to as a means of communicating ‘get to the point’. And if you are interested in bottom lining – it comes from the word of accounting and refers to the profit left after everything had been calculated, so therefore the most important piece of information.

As someone who, at the start of their academic career, was in receipt of many a heavily edited text with comments like, ‘try to reduce the flowery language’ I know from personal experience the challenges associated with the ‘short version’.  We invest a great deal of time and energy in our research, we love the detail and nuance, we have thought about it a lot, and it is hard to let it go. We feel the need to explain the detail so that people can really understand what we are doing and why. Whilst we may find it hard to let go developing the skill of bottom lining is a valuable skill to develop so that in the situations when it is required we are able to ‘cut to the chase’ and not left floundering.

So if you want to test how good you are at cutting to the chase or bottom lining your research- can you summarise why your PhD or your research project is important in 140 characters? An interesting challenge.

Can I? So this in from my PhD: To understand how effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is we must understand & measure what is important to patients. Have a go it’s fun and it will challenge you to really think about the bottom line for your research.

“Share your news”

For a number of years I kept bees, hence the photo accompanying this post, and spent many a happy time sitting under a tree on a sunny day watching the comings and going of the hive. Bees flying in ladened with pollen and full of news. Their complex waggle dance alerting others to the locations of the richest sources of pollen and nectar, a sharing which ensured the continued growth of the community and honey reserves to see the colony, and of course the happy beekeeper, through winter.

So why the focus on sharing the news and growing communities in this post? Last week I co-facilitated a workshop on effective networking and collaboration for health and social care researchers and have been reflecting on the perspectives we explored during the day. The differing views and challenges people voiced; differing approaches adopted; feelings about what is involved; why some people enjoy it and others find it nerve-racking; how much time people were prepared to invest in it; what kind of networking takes people out of their comfort zone and the oft voiced challenge for clinicians when required to network with members of the academic community.

One of the topics explored was the need to move from a general approach to networking, defined as interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts, to a more strategic approach, defined as networking with a defined goal. To network strategically mean to think carefully about our career progression and aspirations and the kinds of networks we need to cultivate and sustain to support our progression. For some this led to a feeling of discomfort associated with the perceived need for self-promotion, especially when adding intent to the relationships you seek to forge and the networks you aim to join.

For anyone challenged by the perceived egocentricity of such networking a presentation by the shy connector offers a differing perspective – “It’s not about selling yourself, it’s about helping others, it’s not about becoming popular it’s about learning and sharing.” Sustaining networks requires a level of mutuality, whether it is with an individual or group such reciprocity is essential for researchers seeking to develop their networks into more formal research collaborations.

Mid week I was listening to an interview with Dr Matthew Green talking about the coffee-house culture in London in the late 1700s. A vibrant, buzzing scene in which politics, philosophy, the arts and science were debated freely.  He described how the usual welcome when someone entered a coffee-house was ‘share your news’. Joining the discussion and the community was as much about giving as it was about receiving.

Whatever your perspective, networking is a fundamental skill for researchers at all stages of their career and the foundation upon which research collaborations are built. Successful collaboration requires investment in time, resources and trust and rarely happens by chance. Relationships are forged over time and require nurturing by all concerned. The people we meet, the conversations we have with others which spark ideas, the person whose world view opens a new window on something we have been grappling with for a long time. Each time we connect there is potential but only if this is a two way process.

For those just starting out on a research career publications or presentations may be sparse but active involvement and participation in relevant networks, provides visibility and something to write about which demonstrates the efforts being made to become part of the research community. It shows that you are starting to make a contribution which is an important statement. For any clinician concerned about networking in an academic community do not under estimate the contribution you have to make informed by your clinical skills and expertise.

So perhaps, when we think about our networking activities as researchers, a fundamental question to ask ourselves is what news are we sharing and contributing. As we enter a workshop or meeting or join a twitter chat are we sharing our news or solely taking away the news shared freely by others. Are we sitting on a piece of information which we know would be helpful to the discussion. To develop effective networks skills getting used to sharing your news is an important skill to nurture.

Becoming a health researcher

DSCN1865Last weeks launch of applications for the HEE/NIHR Integrated Clinical Academic Programme fellowships for ‘non-medical healthcare professionals’ has led me to reflect on the watershed moment that moves someone from thinking about ‘doing research’ to taking the first step on the journey of ‘becoming a researcher’.

It may be a tentative step taken with a bit of a wobble, it may be taken with confidence or it may be a leap full of energy and power but irrespective of the nature of the step it is, never the less, a big step. Submitting an application for a funded fellowship, having a discussion with a line manager about embarking upon a Masters programme or making an appointment to meet with someone to talk about embarking upon a PhD each is the start of a new journey.

If you are a researcher can you remember what sparked that moment for you? Possibly a combination of things: hearing an inspirational talk; the realisation that the only way to try to answer the burning question arising from your practice was to explore it yourself; meeting someone who took the time to listen to what you had to say and instilled in you the confidence to move forward; meeting someone who challenged you to do better. At some point something inside you will have demanded attention and moved you to action. Even though it was some time ago I can still remember the physicality of that moment, a sense of excitement, the quickening of the heart and a connection with something inside of me that was important.

Over the course of a year I meet many clinicians aspiring to become researchers and am involved in many discussions with people wanting to find out more about opportunities to get involved in research. Such conversations focus often on practicalities and processes, how do I find funding, how will I make time, who do I need to talk to? But less frequently do I hear the personal values and aspirations that are being honoured.

Recently I have had the opportunity to work more closely colleagues working from a coaching perspective and have become a trained coach myself. This has opened a different lens for me, the lens of what it means to ‘be’ rather than to ‘do’. This is a lens that I will continue to explore in my writing but in this post I want to focus on those very early steps at the start of a journey.

As someone who has supervised research students if I think about what genuinely ignites excitement in me when meet them for the first time it isn’t just their idea or topic, which is highly likely to change and evolve anyway. What really draws me is the enthusiasm they bring to the conversation, their aspirations and the values they communicate in what they say.

In the workshops we run we have had great fun working with early career researchers from this perspective, really challenging them to connect with their values around research, why it is important to them and their aspirations. These are very different conversations which take people to a deeper level of discovery about themselves.

So if you are about to take the first step in your research journey my suggestion is to do some work around what it means for you to ‘be’ a researcher, why it is important to you and what values you are honouring. This is the fire that keeps researchers alive and carries us through the tough times so it is great to connect with it, explore it and understand it.