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Seven Tips from Experts on Communicating Your Research

by Heather Lanthorn

Experts in communications offer Mercury Project researchers insights into more effective research communication.

What if solutions-oriented researchers effectively communicated in ways appealing to–and actionable by–the public, press, and policymakers? Researchers are not consistently trained in communicating this way. But clear communication connects rigorous, cross-disciplinary social and behavioral science research to informed action about what to continue, start, and stop in the world. For example, the Mercury Project supports solutions-oriented research to build vaccine demand and a supportive information environment, testing cost-effective ways to ensure that vaccines become vaccinations. But as we know from multiple studies of evidence uptake, strong evidence alone will not ensure the adoption of that evidence into policy. 

To support the adoption of vaccine demand evidence into policy, the Mercury Project creates time and space for researchers to collectively consider questions such as how to become an effective communicator. The 18 teams in our Mercury Project Research Consortium come together monthly to constructively engage with one another and to connect with outside experts to gain new skills relevant to securing the adoption of evidence into policy. These sessions are key to ensuring that the solutions-oriented work we support effectively reaches key decision-makers and is incorporated into policy decisions. 

Experts in communications can help researchers learn how to communicate research findings more effectively.  To build Mercury Project researchers’ communications skills, we recently organized two virtual convenings featuring  Ann Searight Christiano (director of the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications) and Estelle Willie (director of Health Policy and Communications at The Rockefeller Foundation). These sessions imparted valuable lessons on effective communication. “We are learning much from the monthly convenings, including the importance of the right communication windows, managing risks of communicating nuanced scientific findings, and other teams’ experiences with communicating results to policymakers,” says Neela Saldanha, a member of the Marklate don cam team and executive director at Y-RISE.

Here are seven key takeaways from our sessions on effective research communication:

1: Set a goal for your audience and build your presentation to achieve that goal. A research presentation is not a chance to enumerate everything you have done and learned, but rather an opportunity to help your audience know, feel, and/or do something differently afterwards. Start by defining the goals of each presentation and build backwards from this objective when planning the presentation.

2: Plan a presentation to build a relationship with your listeners. This is sometimes called ABC: audience before content. Key to achieving your goals is to create a connection with your audience, since you are requesting their time, attention, and trust. You need to create value for the specific audience you have. Start by understanding who they will be and consider areas of shared interests, concerns, and needs to forge connections. The more background research you are able to do, the better. 

3: Become a trusted messenger. Outside the academy–or even across disciplines within the academy–your credentials and methodology may not be the most effective tool to get people to buy into your work. Instead, create a narrative that pulls back the curtain on your personal connection to a topic, then explain how you set about investigating it scientifically. This can bridge the social distance between researchers and potential evidence users.  

4: Elevate other trusted messengers. Researchers may not always be the most compelling or trusted messengers on a topic. Where feasible and appropriate, consider how to elevate those who delivered and experienced the tested solutions (for example, members of implementing organizations, frontline health workers and patients, and even potential evidence users).

5: Flip the research paper script. Especially for nonacademic audiences, lead with results and implications, then fill in methodological detail of how you got there and why it matters against the larger background of other research addressing the same problem.

6: Make the problem and your solution tangible and relatable. It is possible that your audience will feel removed or abstracted from your research topic and answers in some way, including geographically (e.g., if you are presenting about rural issues to an audience in a capital city) and/or hypothetically (e.g., if pandemic preparedness feels removed from immediately pressing issues). Find ways to use imagery, concrete visual language, and evidence-based stories to bridge these gaps.  

7: Don’t throw out your behavioral and social science when planning your presentation to pursue your goals. The behavioral and social sciences help us understand the importance of repetition, framing, the limits of information alone, and the importance of connecting with values, interests, and incentives to change behavior. Consider your presentation as an intervention to bring about a specific effect and design it accordingly.

We hope these seven tactics help you in communicating your research.  The SSRC is dedicated to advancing research to solve problems, and you may also be interested in our Mercury Project Evidence Uptake Checklist, which features key lessons from the research literature on evidence use.  The Council’s College and University Fund Lecture Series likewise features researchers who have studied evidence take-up and use; all of the lectures are available for viewing online.