It’s all very well to come in with that baggage of news media experience – ‘been there, done that’ attitude – that most journalists have. The nuances of communication however, are of a completely different style and substance. This is what I have been discovering through the soft, courteous, encouraging teacher that I have had – Prof M S Swaminathan. Renowned scientist, followed across the world and in India for insights on agriculture, science and policy, yes. Beyond all this, however, is the expertise in people skills that he brings naturally into this package. The nuanced communication that he has is something that never ceases to amaze me. Every day, since I became a part of the institution he founded – this is something I grapple with, to learn.
Versatile: Communication for a person of prominence can be very demanding. It calls for ability to interact with people in general, with peers, with opinion leaders, with the media and also to be able to share thoughts with different audiences with ease. It also means being adept in engaging team members, followers and critics. I have seen this and more in Prof.
Media Savvy: My earlier interactions with Professor, prior to MSSRF, were brief but memorable. Every time he would enquire, make polite conversation, take interest and make you feel comfortable. The rapport and ease that Prof brought me during my journalism days, is something I watch now from close quarters as he fields questions and responds to media requests. No matter from where. I have seen him answer with the greatest care to a student, just as he would to the editor of a leading magazine. Not just with print, with television, radio and with live chats even, he would know when to start, stop, what to say and keep it to an optimum length. For journalists who often struggle to edit interviews, this is a real blessing.
Interpersonal: His skills are not just with the media. It is with all queries that come up. An agriculture graduate in a remote location feeling disillusioned, a fan asking for a signed autograph, a critic’s strongly worded questions, a political leader asking for inputs or a scientist seeking intellectual collaboration – each of them is given time, attention, thought and courtesy. It is a patience that I do not believe is easily acquired and there is so much there to learn from. It is an inter-personal communication skill that draws everyone closer. Breaking down barriers that distance eminent people from others, is a unique way in which he reaches out to people.
Simplifying Science: In an atmosphere of 12-letter words and scientific jargons, from him I find simplicity and meaning. He usually just sits me down and explains in the simplest of terms and with the greatest of patience, complicated scientific concepts that my limited understanding would have surely struggled with, were it not for him. People should understand science, is what he emphasizes. How better to do that than with simple and effective science communication.
Leadership: Joining as a staffer at MSSRF, I was taken aback when he walked into my room, a day after I had joined. “Are you alright?” he said, looking around. “Is there anything I can do to make this space more comfortable? Perhaps I can give you some things from my office to decorate this space.” Unsettled at this, I stammered my thanks. His courtesy and personal rapport is extended to all no matter what position they hold. He is pretty much a people’s person. “An institution is built by its people, not by the bricks and concrete” he often remarks – communication apt for a leader.
Keeping up with trends: At the age of 89, Prof fascinated by social media platform Twitter and the opportunity it held for reaching people, took to it with great enthusiasm and regularity, providing depth and much needed scientific interventions in this space. He often pores over his tab, checking notifications and looking at what others are posting on Twitter. “It shouldn’t become one-way” he often reminds me. “I must also respond to those who have queries.”
This is probably the only workplace that I have been asked “Are you happy?” by Prof of course. “It is important” he told me seriously once, when I just smiled back at him. “You need to be happy in your work. That is more important than anything else”. If nothing, the very question was enough to make me feel that my happiness was important and therefore I was happy. Simple?
While I supposedly ‘Head’ the Media Resource Centre at MSSRF, I am but a student here. Still learning, I’m not sure how good a student I am, but I am thankful that I have the best all-rounded communication teacher that I could ask for in Professor.
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) established in 1988 is a not-for-profit trust. MSSRF was envisioned and founded by Professor M S Swaminathan, agriculture scientist with proceeds from the First World Food Prize that he received in 1987.