Can video make a PhD star?

Like many parents, I have a complicated relationship with kids’ television. There are times when I enjoy the pure joy in a song composed entirely of nonsensical whimsy. Then there are times when I would like to find an appropriate furnace to burn Thomas and all his shunting friends.

Like some parents, occasionally when I watch a kids’ performer pretending to be a bed-hopping monkey, I think to myself  “I could do that. And my monkey would have more mischievous glee too.”

The PhD – Delivering Reality Checks for Free

 Of all the unlikely vehicles to allow me to test my front of camera skills, I have this PhD project. When I embarked on it almost accidentally (pretty clumsy, right), I assumed it would mostly be me and a computer and lots and lots of data. One day it might be. What I didn’t expect was that 2 years in the surrounding bits would be such a major part of the process.

As I’ve said before here, it has become massively apparent that if you have an idea you believe in communicating is part of the job. Who else is going to talk up your thing if you won’t?

Coupled to this is the fact that I’m doing this within a charity organisation. Unsurprisingly, they also want to tell people about stuff they do. Of course, there’s not really any way I can think of getting funded that wouldn’t involve communicating what the work involves.

And so it is, that I ended up in front of a camera.

The Brief

To explain a bit about the research, we’ve created a short video pitched at the layperson. If you care to view it up front, you can look here (the link is at the bottom of the page).

The target we set was to try and answer a few questions in these 3 or so minutes:

  • Who we are and what we do.
  • Why do we give a damn about trauma and particularly traumatic brain injury?
  • What’s the problem we’re trying to address and what the hell is the monitor with the fancy name all about?
  • What are we actually doing about it?

We did this armed with a script from me, a volunteer called Cam on the camera, a bunch of black drapes in an office and 3 props. Now it’s out there for anyone to judge if we were successful.

What did I learn?

1.     Imagery is everything

One of the hardest elements to get across was the idea of how the monitoring might reveal stuff that’s going on in the brain. That’s where the balloon (and some textas plus a rather saintly wife) came in. This concept was developed in the preparation for the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night from earlier in the year and I still like it, although I’m always looking for a better one. A good image can demonstrate a concept way quicker than many, many words.

The search for a way of demonstrating this idea also led to a really clear focus on exactly what it is we’re doing and made me understand the complex stuff better. There are all sorts of benefits in communication.

2.     A Camera is a Strange and Unrelenting Prison

I can talk plenty in a small group. I can talk in a big room. I am seriously unnerved by a flashing red light (and no there’s no hidden associations with red lights and a long suppressed past).

Practice felt easy. In the dark room, with the light on I rediscovered the self-consciousness of a big-haired teenager. It’s truly strange how the unblinking glint of a camera lens makes it feel like you yourself are blinking way too much. It felt as if my eyelids were convinced they had a chance to live out their dream of stepping up to the big leagues and delivered a performance akin to wipers trying to clear dead bugs off a windscreen.

My hands, usually friends of mine, became massively oversized. They felt so big and everywhere I wondered if I’d forgotten the point earlier in the day where I washed my hands in a particularly angry hornets’ nest. My hand acting clearly followed the teaching of this serious actor.

So enough daydreaming. I can happily acknowledge now that there are reasons pros are pros. Which just means it’s time for practice.

3.     There’s Room to Improve

When I see it, I think it’s a start. There are things that I wish were more slick and professional looking. Actually, that’s mostly just my face I’m talking about. I am very impressed at the efforts of the CareFlight team in building on top of a little idea, supported only by 2 balloons and 3 takes.

It turns out a PhD delivers way more than just an experience in research, or the fascinating pain of literature reviews and revision. It takes you in unexpected directions. Although next time I watch Play School I’ll have to acknowledge the harsh reality that maybe I won’t be disputing the rider with Big Ted, Humpty and friends any time soon.

If you made it this far before checking it, here’s the direct link. I submit it to the court of public (well, not that public really) opinion. And if you’ve got the time, let me know what you think. How did we go? Is there a better option than the brain balloon or am I going to be popping those things for the next few years? Should there be more gags? Is it even easy to include jokes about brain injury in this sort of thing? I’m all virtual ears. After all, my future in research may well depend just as much on my communication as my stats.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.


3 thoughts on “Can video make a PhD star?

  1. Hi Andy,

    I thought the video was pretty good!

    Just a couple of comments:
    1) The blackout times were a bit long. I had a brief moment of concern that, even though there was still audio maybe there was a problem with the visual. A shorter transition between the lights going out on you and you illuminating something in the dark would be better.
    2) I didn’t get what the thumb was about the first time, and I’m still not quite sure I really get the analogy after a second try either. I think I get what you’re getting at, but the thumb was confusing.

    Your nerves didn’t come across too much – not like you described above. Can you think of the camera like a living being, and the flashing light it’s vital sign? Keep talking or it’ll stop! Maybe? Maybe not? I’m no good at public speaking so that mightn’t be a good tip at all!

    But hey, by the end of this if you ever need to branch out, I’m sure you could probably apply to the ABC for a spot on Play School! How’s your singing voice?
    : )

    • Thanks Dayna and it does feel long (and very black). Could have made the link to peripheral pulse oximetry clearer too.

      As to the camera, I’m exaggerating a little for effect but I think I hadn’t made the mental adjustment that you don’t get non-verbal feedback to the effect of your words. What is interesting is the amount of noise in my head while I’m trying to stick to saying stuff. Like most things just needs more experience I’d say.

      As to Play School, I note that you need representation and an ability to do it in a single take. I’ll be very surprised if I hear from agents on the basis of this video (but of course, if their people want to call my people …)

      Thanks for checking it out and the feedback.

  2. Pingback: Research Without Test Tubes | The Flying PhD

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