Sensory Stories

In this guest post, Dr. Claire Wood (University of York) from Sensory Stories considers how blogging can be a way of producing ‘public-facing’ communication alongside innovative face-to-face dialogue.

Children at a Sensory Stories event taste gruel from the famous scene in Oliver Twist.

Sensory Stories was an AHRC-funded project that ran from 2010 to 2011, which taught researchers to communicate their ideas to audiences beyond the academy by using a sensory ‘hook’. It was a simple idea: using audio and visual cues, object interaction and performance techniques, and appeals to the senses of taste and smell to prompt a two-way dialogue. However, it was one that proved extremely effective: while many members of the public initially felt they had little to say about areas of university research like the Victorian workhouse system, a bowl of authentic gruel could start a meaningful conversation, both about nineteenth-century attitudes towards the poor and the problems of hunger today.

Together with an interdisciplinary team based at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York, I helped to plan a training day for postgraduate students and developed opportunities for participants to practice their skills within a variety of heritage and community-based settings. These included York Art Gallery, Shandy Hall, the Yorkshire Museum, a local primary school and a residential care home. Each placement involved different challenges, from communicating a museum’s collections to the general public, to adapting complex research about Norse mythology into a form suitable for ten year olds. As a model for public engagement, Sensory Stories is important as it achieved significant impact on a relatively modest budget of £2022: as well as a training day for sixty, it developed five ‘Sensory Opportunities’, established collaborations between students at York and other Northern universities, and attracted international attention.

The accompanying blog was crucial to the project’s success for a number of reasons. For many of us, it was our first chance to write public-facing texts and to think about how to report our activities in a way that would appeal to a wider audience rather than just our academic colleagues. Our talented blog editor, Carolyn Donohue, drew upon her previous media experience in coaching us to include attractive pictures and enticing headlines, and to ensure that our writing was to-the-point and jargon-free. The blog established a visual identity for Sensory Stories and allowed partners and participants to follow our progress at different stages. It also helped us to link up with other public engagement projects and disseminate our ideas far beyond the Northeast of England – an academic visited from as far afield as Australia, having learnt about our work online! Perhaps most importantly the blog provides a legacy for the project in archiving our inspirations and activities.

Project participants discuss the legacy of the project. The blog was left online as a record.

I feel that platforms like WordPress have a tremendous value for public engagement projects: what excites me is that you can communicate with such a wide audience almost instantly and for free. The user-friendly interface democratises the web: whereas previously you needed to have quite a lot of experience to create a professional-looking website, the customisable templates make it easy. The statistics that WordPress provides about viewer numbers, search terms, and the countries in which these searches originate also provide useful quantitative data for funders. The ability to comment on posts also builds in the potential to have a meaningful two-way dialogue online—although as I found, it can be difficult to extend this dialogue beyond the immediate participants (and my Mum!)

I continue to use blogging in my academic life and am particularly interested in the range of data visualisation tools that the web offers. Most recently I’ve been experimenting with Google Earth in a project recording the global scope of the Dickens 2012 Bicentenary: to me it seems that such tools are invaluable in presenting the ‘impact’ of the arts and humanities, both to funding bodies and the public at large.

Tips for public engagement blogging

  • Regular updates are essential. It can be useful to rota contributions from committee members. Don’t forget that you can save up content if you have a sudden glut: it is more interesting for subscribers to receive something every week, rather than get two or three items over the course of a weekend and then nothing more for a month.
  • Use enticing headlines and interesting photos to bring your posts to life (ensuring that you have permission from those featured).
  • Remember that people have less patience when reading on screen: posts should be concise and to-the-point, with short paragraphs. Quotations from participants can be a useful way to provide variety and give a sense of dialogue.
  • To maintain a professional image, ensure that you proofread carefully and ensure that you are consistent in the use of italics and s/z spellings.
  • Tag and file items so that they are easy to search for.
  • Invite comments by asking questions within the posts (although be aware that it can be challenging to get viewers to comment – sometimes people are reluctant to make the first comment, in which case twist the arms of friends and colleagues to get the conversation going).
  • Publicise your blog using social media. Network with other public engagement initiatives using a blogroll and Twitter, and invite guest posts.
  • Try to connect your digital community and your physical audience: for example, in a Q&A setting you could take live questions from participants in the lecture theatre and online, and encourage people to tweet.

Harry Tutoridge

I'm Harry, based in Oxford in the United Kingdom. I blog about all things digital, learning and the environment.

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