How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Accuracy Isn’t Everything

There’s no “right” way to communicate research (although there are plenty of ineffective ways). There are only tradeoffs between accuracy on the one hand and precision, relevance and impact on the other.

Pretending those tradeoffs don’t exist — or not being crystal clear about which is more important for the goals you want to achieve — is an excellent way to make your expertise invisible, or visible for the wrong reasons.

We get into this trouble most often when we try to communicate findings and papers — interventions which come from a world that prioritizes accuracy — to the rest of the world, which prefers precision and relevance and whose response we call our impact.

Apple data visualizer Elijah Meeks (in the essay “We Live in a World of Funnels”) writes about the often necessary tradeoffs between accuracy and precision in data visualization — which, like science and much of research generally, is also a practice of modeling reality.

Accuracy without precision looks like this on a dartboard:

From Elijah Meeks, “We Live in a World of Funnels

while precision without accuracy looks like this:

From Elijah Meeks, “We Live in a World of Funnels

In data visualization — and in communicating research and research expertise — accuracy and precision are often in tension, and it’s a zero-sum game. More of one necessarily means less of the other.

Researchers generally want to be accurate — which is the priority in their culture, and is why they often express themselves in caveats necessary for full accuracy but experienced by the rest of the world as maddening uncertainty.

Research communicators need to respect this need for accuracy; it’s what makes research so valuable. So, much of their work is to keep the message (and the public representation of the organization) from tipping too far toward accuracy or toward precision — to either a super-caveated jargon-ridden indecipherable mess or a simplistic slogan in search of a headline.

But make no mistake: research communicators want to be precise and relevant— which is to say, to make what they say about research’s findings, recommendations and solutions as clear and pointed and imperative and germane to specific audiences as possible.

That’s because the bigger goal of communications for your organization is usually impact. Non-specialists might respect accuracy. But they crave precision and relevance.

This tension, of course, still drives many researchers nuts.

Takeaway: But if you run a research-driven organization, you need to make room in your culture for precision, relevance and impact through communications. Achieving many of your organizational goals (such as fundraising, brand awareness, entry into important conversations) will depend on it.

You need to find and hire communications people who understand these tradeoffs; respect the need for accuracy among your researchers (or, if it’s just you, the researcher in you); and still find a way to maximize precision and impact.

These communications professionals should also understand how to create authority content that’s less about your individual research products (which live in the world of accuracy) and more about your expertise and its application to the world (which shifts the ground to precision, relevance and impact).