My first semester as an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri ended last week. I taught a class I created called Communications in Natural Resources. It was an experience I’ll treasure forever. Over the course of 15 weeks, I came to realize if my students are a reflection of their generation, the future of our natural world is good hands.
I spend a lot of time talking and writing about topics relating to the outdoors, specifically fish and wildlife. Most of the time, I am not an expert. While I may know a little about a lot of things, it’s people who know a lot about one thing communicators like me use as sources for stories. Unfortunately, too often, the expert sources are poor communicators. They possess incredible knowledge. Yet struggle to deliver what they know to the general public in a way that makes it relevant to the masses.
As a member of the School of Natural Resources Advisory Council, I have come to know and deeply respect the leadership and professors of the school. Dr. Shibu Jose is doing an incredible job ensuring our state’s flagship university continues to turn out some of the world’s top natural resources experts. During a meeting last year, he asked me if I saw any opportunity to improve the curriculum. I suggested we do a better job of teaching these brilliant young minds how to tell their stories. Dr. Jose agreed and empowered me to create a curriculum and teach it.
To begin with, I examined beliefs I feel justified the need for this class. Number one being; no matter what your job is, communication is important. And the more prepared you are to offer input on the efforts of your work the more likely you are to build support for what it is you do and care about. Also, as far as personal advancement, if you become known as someone who can both complete the work and communicate the outcomes, you are much more valuable to the business, agency or organization you’re part of. Who would remember the revolutionary work of Aldo Leopold had he not written a “Sand County Almanac?”
I broke the course down into lessons about different communications platforms and had guest lecturers discuss their expertise. We covered magazine writing, letters to the editor and opinion pieces in newspapers, television and radio interviews, social media, websites, photography, public speaking and more.
Sara Parker Pauley, Director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, spoke to the class about how important communication is across all divisions of the Department and how critical it is to communicate the agency’s efforts to citizens. And not all citizens gather information in the same ways.
The Department has to communicate across the many different platforms from which the public consumes information. Director Pauley is an expert communicator herself, so it was exciting to see the students relate to her message. When the person leading an agency of over 1,500 employees, the same agency some of these students hope to work for when they graduate, emphasized the importance of communications in all natural resources professions, the students listened and learned.
Another great guest lecturer was Nathan “Shags” McLeod of The Morning Shag radio show on 96.7 KCMQ. Shags talked about how much he values the natural resources of Missouri and enjoys sharing messages of conservation with his listeners, but finds guests often struggle with the rapid fire pace of a radio interview. He wants guests on his show to talk conservation, but needs them to be fun and personable, and to talk in a way most people can relate to.
“Leave the rocket science at home,” Shags said. “Give them the elevator speech. Quickly explain to listeners why this important and why they should care. Tell them how it impacts them personally.”
At the end of the class, students were paired into four groups with the assignment of building and implementing a communications plan around a natural resources topic of concern. The four topics they selected and worked on were: Open Our Four State Parks, Reintroductions of Wildlife Species, Wildflowers in Urban Settings and The Effects of Climate Change on Wildlife. You can see the minds of tomorrow have their priorities.
I hope my students gained a better understanding of how important it is to communicate scientific knowledge in a way most citizens can understand. Our natural world faces incredible challenges requiring the support of the public to address and fix. Once these students are in professional roles, if I did my job, they will try a little harder to share their expertise.
See you down the trail…