To help our competitors prep and learn more about effective science communication, we interviewed Megan Helmer, president of PR Associates. PR Associates is a Vancouver-based science communication consultancy company.
Thanks for joining us Megan! How did you get to where you are now?
I didn't take any specific paths thinking I'd become a science communicator. I took a job nearly 20 years ago with a biotech company in their investor relations department. I was still in university at the time, and I really just took the job because it was close to home. I’ve always had an interest in chemistry and geology, but this was the first time I could see there were jobs in science communication, though it wasn’t called such at the time.
Over the course of my career, I came to realize I had a real skill set in understanding technical concepts and explaining them in terms a non-technical person would understand. And of course, over the last 20 years, my communication abilities and understanding of communication principles have deepened, and that has supported my ability to communicate science effectively.
With PR Associates, I started 7 years ago as an Account Manager and I just kept moving up the ranks. Last year, I was asked by the owner to become the President. I’m proud to lead PR Associates now and take the organisation from one focused mostly on mining to a fully STEM-focused organisation.
Your company tagline is communicating complex science simply - why is this so important?
The majority of our current and past clients have been from the mining industry. Effective communication is so critical because there's a lack of energy literacy across Canada, and mining companies are truly vilified for what they're trying to do.
It stems from a lack of understanding of processes, current regulations and practices around environmental protection. I saw over and over again situations where senior mining executives would go into communities and scare people. They were trying to communicate, but they were so focused on their plans and their processes that they didn’t speak in an audience-centric manner.
While they were trying to alleviate fear, they often increased it because their audience didn't understand their approach. So my passion comes from recognising that natural resource development is important - it's what British Columbia and Canada are founded on. But there needs to be more meaningful conversations amongst those involved and affected, and I'm passionate about seeing those conversations happen.
What advice do you have for Data Speaks! competitors, who may be doing their first on-camera interview?
Take a step back and ask yourself 3 questions:
What am I trying to achieve? What do I want my audience to do with the information I'm about to share? What action do I want them to take once I share this information?
Who's my audience? What do they need and how can I expect them to receive this information?
How do you take the facts and tell them as a story?
So, that’s my 8 hour workshop in 10 seconds! But it really comes down to spending your preparation time thinking about why you’re sharing that information, and what you want the audience to do with it.
What tips do you have for public speaking?
There are the 4 Ps of speaking: pitch, pace, power and pausing.
Pitch is how the tone of your voice varies. Monotone (one-tone) answers or presentations will cause you to lose your audience quickly. You want to vary the level of your voice to draw your audience in.
Pace is how quickly you speak. Varying pace is another way to draw your audience into the conversation. When we're nervous we tend to speak very quickly, so recognise that and slow yourself down.
Power is not as important in on-camera interviews because you are usually given a microphone, but when you're in a room full of people you want to add power to your voice. You have to command the authority you need.
Lastly, pausing - which I can't emphasise enough. Pausing is what keeps you calm. When you pause, take a deep breath. It's also a way of signalling to your audience to listen to what you're about to say.
Body language has a lot to do with how people perceive your message as well. So what advice do you have about that?
It's funny, because when we're having a normal conversation with friends or family, our body language is really natural, we don't need to think about it. But when we’re emotional, nervous or uncomfortable, the obvious stops being obvious.
You first need to recognise and acknowledge how you’re feeling. Take the time to pause and breath. Reset and consider what your natural behaviour would be. Follow that as closely as possible.
How do you know you're effectively communicating?
In an on-camera interview, it's challenging. But when you're in a room full of people you can tell based on their reactions. Are they paying attention, or have they pulled out their phone?
You can also tell by the level of emotion in the conversation. If everyone seems fairly calm and connected, you're probably doing a great job communicating.
Any last thoughts?
I really encourage people to ask themselves, why am I sharing this information? What do you want my audience to do with it? The best way to know you've communicated effectively, is to see your audience take the action you’ve encouraged them to do.
Megan Helmer is the President of PR Associates, a public relations and communication firm working with STEM-based organizations in the mining, energy, clean-tech, biotech, health and tech industries. She has nearly 20 years of communication and public relations experience during which she has developed a network of business and government leaders who rely on her expertise to solve numerous communication issues. She remains personally involved in each client file providing superior counsel and strategic guidance to effectively communicate science to non-technical audiences.
About PRA: PR Associates is the first STEM-focused communications consultancy and training organization in Canada. They help STEM-minded professionals and their organizations build favourable reputations and achieve success by turning complex and technical communications into simple and relatable information. Their team members have diverse and global experience, which allows them to collaborate and deliver the best service to meet their clients’ business and reputational goals.