How researchers get heard
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Flywheels, Forcing Functions & Painted Pictures

Doing good content consistently for non-specialists — that’s hard.

But we make it much harder, because our support mechanisms suck so badly.

By mechanisms, I’m not talking about annual objectives, or encouragement from your board or director or chair, or ad hoc nudges, or altmetrics, or science communication workshops. (I’m especially not talking about science communication workshops.) If you’re a researcher, you do research — and if you’re going to do thought leadership content, which is not research, those thought leadership mechanisms have to be in your face and operational all the time to work at all. They need to constantly suggest good ideas. They need to oblige you to turn those ideas into content. And they need to remind you why you’re doing all this content in the first place. The mechanisms together should make doing original content as easy and strategic as possible. By “strategic,” I mean as aligned as possible with your expertise and the business goals of your organization, if you’re running one.

Three of the most important content mechanisms you can have are a content flywheel, a forcing function, and a painted picture.

Your content flywheel is the suggestion mechanism. The flywheel is simply: the sum of your research, your collaborations and your attention to a certain kind of value for the world (not research, but the world) that flows from those activities. The value is this: The work and the collaborations spin up emerging trends, new findings and gaps in understanding among key audiences — all valuable insights for those audiences that you can capture and share with them through thought leadership.

For instance, one of my clients has a focal research area on electric vehicles in emerging economies. She has a special skill for translating science to policymaking and vice-versa. Her work and that skill together push out ideas for thought leadership that could clarify trends and identify gaps in technology, investment, legal frameworks and policy. That’s her flywheel. All she has to do is look at what’s coming out of it through the lens of what those audiences need and how they need to learn about it…i.e., not just papers, but clear, compelling thought leadership.

Your forcing functions are the obligation mechanism. They are the things that push you into producing thought leadership, at a pace that makes you slightly uncomfortable but for which you can and will plan, for stakes that are worth the effort and disruption. Effective forcing functions might include:

  • An upcoming talk.
  • A regular biweekly or monthly column.
  • A podcast you host.
  • A forthcoming paper or report.

External forcing functions are always better than internal ones (say, you’re going to show your boss a draft of something in two weeks). An external commitment is an obligation and a privilege. You miss the deadline, you might screw up the privilege.

Your painted picture is a detailed picture of what your life as a public expert looks like in a year or three or five. Not how you’re going to get there, but simply what it looks like. Research suggests that having a vision, organizational or personal, increases creative performance and professional resilience. Some of the questions your painted picture might answer include: Which media figures are turning to you for interviews? To which conferences are you giving talks? Which podcasts are you guesting on? For whom are you writing? For whom are you giving private briefings? How is your organization benefiting from your public expertise? The vision, once sufficiently detailed, both inspires and suggests a plan of action.

Without these mechanisms, producing good original content for non-specialists — writing, making a video, doing a podcast, even tweeting regularly — often seems too expensive. Not just the actual budget line of production, but your time and the tradeoffs, the opportunity costs. When work piles up and other demands become urgent (when reality, in other words), thought leadership will always fall to the bottom of the queue…unless it has dedicated mechanisms to keep it going.