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A sense of elation, the adrenalin rush, feedback during the coffee break that your research message has really hit home. As researchers, shouldn’t we get this reaction every time we present to professional and public audiences?

In this blog Emma Halliday from LiLaC shares her experience of taking part in a programme to develop researchers’ creative performance and communication skills.

We’re at the journey’s end of the first Academy of Creative Minds (ACM) – a live performance of our research delivered to the NHS R&D North West ‘Let’s Talk Research’ conference. As a public health researcher, I hadn’t, admittedly, thought this would involve acting the part of a power dressing consultant in front of 150 health delegates at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Over a period of six months, including a residential at Lancaster University and mentoring sessions with creative professionals; NHS and university researchers co-created a series of creative pieces – drawing on skills from musicians, a circus performer, theatre director, comedian, and writer  – intended to engage audiences in more imaginative ways.  As researchers working on health inequalities (NIHR CLAHRC North West Coast’s Sarah Mosedale, Ana Porroche-Escudero, Jenny Irvine and myself from NIHR SPHR) the Lancaster team produced a short play about the influences on people’s health that go beyond individual behaviours. Focusing on the topic of obesity and ‘hidden’ sugar, we worked with creative mentors – Rob Young and Jana Kennedy – to write and perform a script based around a spoof TV breakfast show involving guest ‘experts’ from public health and the food industry as well as a filmed ‘advert’ for supersized chocolate.

The actual performance is over in a jiffy. “Do you remember any of it?” asks Ana Porroche-Escudero, who plays the part of the TV host.   The conference is, hopefully, just the beginning.  The real possibilities for impact are in delivering the play in local neighbourhoods to generate conversations about health inequalities and how communities and practitioners can take action to make a difference.

“We want to get right away from the idea that public health involves lecturing people on how they ‘should’ behave in order to be healthy,” says CLAHRC’s Sarah Mosedale. “There is a long and noble tradition of using comedy and agitprop to spread the word about how the system works to favour the rich and powerful. I think it’s great that we have had this chance to work in this tradition as public health researchers and I hope we can do a lot more with it.”

As we return to the academic world of funding deadlines and ethics applications, it seems unlikely that a career in acting is on the cards: “Have you considered panto?” asks my colleague Mark upon seeing images from the show.

The creators of ACM ultimately aim to encourage ‘Edge Walking’ in the ways that people working in the NHS, universities and other sectors conduct and communicate their research. Following the conference, my attention turns to planning a workshop for our NIHR SPHR Communities in Control study. It’s hard to imagine actors, theatre directors or conductors turning up to deliver a show without having rewritten several drafts of a script or putting in hours of rehearsal time.  It’s also unusual to go to a theatre for the performance to be cut short because the actors ran out of time to deliver it.  Yet how often had I been guilty of rushing through key messages because there were too many slides to cover in the allotted time?  Of course, for research evidence to impact on communities and practice involves more than innovative ways of dissemination. It is also about seeking inspiration from people such as Penny Clough MBE , one of the conference key note speakers, about Penny and her husband’s campaign for change amid the most dreadful of circumstances.

As the workshop approaches, I turn off the computer and concentrate on my talk. What would happen if I quit power-point for a month, or even longer?   Perhaps it isn’t necessary to create fictitious characters or become a comedian every time I want to discuss my research.  Having new tools from arts and creativity to draw upon has, nevertheless, increased my motivation to explore more entertaining and emotive ways of public engagement.  And those juggling skills will definitely be a helpful distraction at those times when no one can get the overhead projector to work.

To view all the creative performances from the conference, visit this YouTube playlist.

 Acknowledgements

We would like to give a big thank you to all members of the Academy of Creative Minds team, our fellow ACM participants as well as NHS R&D North West colleagues for all their time, creative input and encouragement. 

 To find out more about the ACM visit www.research.northwest.nhs.uk/work/academy-of-creative-minds/

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