The poet Keats talked about a special quality of attention that enabled him to see the world differently and turn that into creative expression. He called it negative capability and described it as a state of being “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
It turns out that Keats was a forerunner of modern theory about human creativity, supporting the view that by integrating right-and-left brain skills people are able to reframe their expertise and create powerful pitches that speak to the wider world. The challenge is how to convince those who have been brilliantly trained in the fact and reason of the world, the left-brain tradition of the Oxford Science community, to embrace this more integrative discipline.
Building on the insight that this type of learning has to be experience led, InnovationWorks used an Action Research approach in working with post-doctoral scientists at MPLS Oxford University. The goal was to enable them to understand better the wider impact of their leading edge science and how to communicate this when pitching to commercial audiences.
The need to pitch
Pitching, the act of promoting specialist work so it connects with the agendas of others, affects us all; whether it is for fundraising, or because we have an idea we want to progress and we need to convince stakeholders to support our ambition. At its heart pitching is about having an enterprising mindset, which means getting other people involved in our ambition so it can grow and make a bigger splash.
Based on the creative and entrepreneurial practices of Silicon Valley, and thought leadership from Stanford University in the field of design thinking, successful pitching is most usefully understood as the effective connecting with other human beings. To do this the person making the pitch must work with particular types of stories – those that have a human element and can arouse empathy in the listener. The speaker focuses on putting things in terms that will connect with the listener, rather than simply on telling their own story – and this connection is rational, emotional and worldly.
Stories come from talking and empathy
As Keats knew, stories connect through our emotional responses and much less so through our faculties of reason – Hollywood would make very different films if this was not the case. The challenge for Postdoctoral scientists is how to go against what they have been very highly trained to rely on, the primacy of rational evidence. In our work with a pilot group, we took them through a number of small interventions while presenting them with the academic evidence of the value of using instinct, empathy and experimental action in creative work. We encouraged them to imagine who might value their science outside of the immediate academic world, to seek people out and interview them as potential consumers of their science – listening to understand their reality and insights about the world and so hear the news of difference that might stimulate them to know their own scientific expertise differently.
We gave them permission to listen to their instincts and hunches, to experiment and act fast so that they could test out hypotheses and gather more data about what did and didn’t land with the world outside of the lab – rather than try to create complex, theoretical models of how the world might respond to them.
Appreciating working in a way that privileges fast iteration and human connection
The scientists appreciated the benefits of working in this way, of exploring and stepping into their uncertainty about how their knowledge might land in the world. They trusted their instincts and the data they got from being in direct contact with people – collecting and using all the subtle signals about what did and didn’t land with them.
All of the Scientists expressed deep satisfaction at the perspective they gained through being encouraged to explore the worlds of their ‘users’. Several were surprised by the difference a few simple, but new to them, approaches made – how their confidence grew as they learnt to listen differently and really sought to understand other people’s reality. Those involved with pure science research had the greatest challenge, but most persevered and were surprised at the insight generated. Others were truly excited by the new knowing they developed.
The scientists were to learn through doing, without waiting for perfect information, with tight timeframes – known as ‘agile working’ in the trade. Of course this way of working did not come naturally and was uncomfortable at times. Given the pressure of external events and some innate discomfort with pitching, not everyone could keep to the program. We’ve learnt that we need to provide more signposts and support to contain people’s anxieties, so they to overcome these challenges in the future.
As an output, the Scientists created YouTube pitches and then practiced them on each other – working with peers on something tangible really helps. They recognized they had to unpick the rational requirements of the research abstract that they are expert at. At the end of the whole process they reported feeling much more capable of pitching to the world, outside their immediate professional circle. They also felt more confident in the value of their research and so became more compelling, really being able to speak from the heart. A few went on to say that this greater confidence was tipping over into other areas of their professional lives.
It seems there is plenty that Doctorate Scientists can learn from Keats and we find this avenue of work truly exciting. Giving scientists the opportunity to access their negative capabilities, to see opportunities to be enterprising, has never been more important for them personally and for the world hungry for knowledge that could otherwise stay hidden.
If you would like more information on our programs to support your development please take a look at mpls.ox.ac.uk/enterprise and follow the links to the Pitching your Research for Impact course.
Innovation works was founded by Kathryn Gordon. It is informed by her practice as a business psychologist and practical experience (with companies as varied as Unilever and the BBC in new product development, consumer research, marketing training as well as in investment in early stage companies). She is an experienced practioner in positive psychology, design thinking and agile work practices. She holds an MBA from INSEAD, MA cantab and BScPsych. Contact Kathryn
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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