Bringing Farmville to the tropics

By David Poulson

When you give a talk on science or research or just about anything, you want to establish an immediate relationship with your audience.

Find something you have in common before leading that audience into unfamiliar territory.

Here is a good example of doing just that in a  brief presentation at a recent workshop on fostering innovation at Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

“Who here is on Facebook?” Emilia Tjernstrom immediately asks her audience. Chances are that everyone either is on Facebook or is inordinately proud of avoiding that cultural phenomenon.

Either way, Tjernstrom has us hooked as we wonder how she’ll ever link that opening to her research.

She takes us further down that road with a reference to Farmville.  A mention of the perils of Farmville (spamming your friends) linked to the real threats of real farms in developing nations (droughts, pests, not being able to feed your family) is the “turn.”

That’s the transitional point. Now that she has our attention, she’ll explain the substance of this innovation.

Simple images – corn of different heights – are contrasted with other images that require a bit more thought – a graph of pH distribution. We almost don’t care that the term she uses to describe that graph may be unfamiliar to many.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to Google around to figure out the reference to Bloms. I eventually asked a friend who does statistical work. Another way of describing it may have been better for a general audience. And yet there is nothing wrong with teaching people a new word.

That’s one more for me.

The piece is engaging and brief.  Yet you can see how it would prompt questions and conversation that further engages the audience.

And communication is all about the engagement.

Rewards for paying attention are appreciated. And in this case we are treated with a  wrap-up that is carefully constructed and practiced:

“So while we don’t think that we will be able to make farming child’s play, we think we might be able to use a game that leaves farmers with the ability to feed their children.”


Check out other examples of this kind of work here.

David Poulson is the director of the translational scholars program and senior associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.


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