Often, as a researcher you speak a completely different language to the majority of people! If you only had to communicate with your peers then this would not be a problem but modern researchers need to reach a range of different audiences, from the layperson to experts in other disciplines. Your research expertise can act as both a barrier and a vehicle to effective communication. All too often, research is hidden behind a vocabulary that is overly technical and disengaging but there are ways to avoid that.
I have facilitated numerous workshops aimed at improving the way researchers communicate their research. I have found that over the course of a workshop, those researchers that make the most significant advances tend to go through a series of steps:
- The first step is always recognition of the fact that communicating technical research is not easy!
- The second phase is confusion and anxiety about trying to communicate differently using non-technical language, and drawing out key messages rather than trying to tell the whole story.
- The third and final phase involves recognising the killer facts and messages within their research and building a new, engaging narrative around these. Pinpointing the ingredients to effective messaging in this way can be incredibly challenging and time consuming, but cracking the code will help you and your research to reach new audiences.
Beyond these crucial steps, researchers can focus on four more important factors:
Be clear and understood
For some people, this factor represents the beginning, middle and end of an effective message. But clarity and understanding are difficult to separate out from the other factors listed here. You can be clear, but if you don’t present things in an interesting and engaging way then people will easily switch off and stop listening.
Of course, clarity and understanding can be hugely enhanced through the effective use of language. Every guide on the topic will tell you to avoid using technical language, acronyms and abbreviations, which is undoubtedly very good advice. If you have to use technical words or phrases then explain what they mean, but also ask yourself whether the use of such words is actually necessary.
Make connections between your research and people’s issues and concerns
It can be difficult to link your research to everyday matters in ordinary lives, but if you can do this, it adds an incredibly engaging hook to what you are saying. Getting across the possible human or environmental impact of your research is very important. This helps people to contextualise your research and understand it better.
To find such a “hook”, ask yourself questions about your research, to identify possible connections. You might ask: what potential benefits will my research bring? Do these benefits address a particular challenge, if so what is that challenge? What other research am I building on, and how has that led to benefits or solved problems – does my research help with that?
Helping people to understand what your research is attempting to address is as important as telling them about the research itself. For example, while research on a particular policy issue may not solve the issue itself, it may help improve it in the long term. Your research may be a number of steps removed from understanding a particular problem or issue better, but understanding what this issue is can add a great deal of weight to your message.
Be confident and sound credible
Confidence is important: people don’t always communicate well if they feel uneasy. When you are given a formal opportunity to talk about your research, it’s common to feel nervous. At times like these we begin to question the language we use and our presentation style. It takes time to learn to be comfortable in these situations. It is important to find a style that works for you and your audience. By focusing on developing an effective approach you can soon overcome potential traps and pitfalls:
Keep things clear and simple. Don’t hide behind numbers and highly technical language. Remember that in most cases outside of academia, people are not looking to test your evidence, but instead they want to know why it’s important. Your long term credibility as a researcher may well, by and large, be linked to the evidence you produce, but when presenting your research, your audience will want to see that you believe in what you are doing and that you are passionate about why it’s important.
Practice your message and know your audience
A former colleague of mine would often recommend using your grandma to test whether what you were saying was clear and understood. This often made me think, ‘what if your grandma happens to be head of faculty’? This may be unlikely and while I am wary of grandma stereotypes, my colleague’s point was a good one: if you can find a layperson to listen and play back your message, or better still have an emotional response to it then you will be able to start seeing how your words are perceived and understood. Practice is key, and while your own grandma might provide you with a yard stick, your prospective audiences are diverse. It is wise to keep an open mind about what kind of audience you are communicating with and how you should go about communicating with them, and with practice you will be able to adapt your style accordingly.