How researchers get heard
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How Much Time Do They Have?

How do you decide what specific tactics — tweeting? op-eds? a roundtable? smoke signals? — to use in communicating your research idea to non-specialists?

Most research communication efforts throw up their collective hands and say: let’s do everything. Or let’s do what we always do. Hey, let’s use building blocks in a video this time!

Here’s a post from Urban Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Schwabish that tries to customize the playbook. (It’s from the forthcoming book from Urban’s comms team, Elevate the Debate: A Multilayered Approach to Communicating Your Research.) Schwabish’s post concentrates on what he calls Urban’s “pyramid philosophy” of research communications, encapsulated in this graphic:

The more complex the format and messaging, the smaller the potential audience. Not earth tremblingly novel, of course. I am very much looking forward to Elevate the Debate — but I know that if I showed this graphic to researchers I’ve worked with, almost all of them would say, well, we want the elite audience, so we’re fine with just our fact sheets! Probably not the response I’m looking for.

What if instead we inverted the “audience” pyramid (which is really an “audience size” pyramid) and made it a “how much time do they have?” pyramid? And then filled out those layers with the specific audiences that we thought had only that amount of time AND fed in those time-specific channels? That would provide an excellent terrain map for our communications plan.

Then, Schwabish’s next point makes perfect sense: “every product on the pyramid links one below it, grounded in in-depth, sophisticated analysis.”

Every blog post links to underlying evidence and a report. Every web feature includes the option to download a dataset or report. Every tweet finds its way back to a more in-depth analysis that provides evidence for claims made at each level of the pyramid. The data are available for the user who wants to dig deeper. Evidence is as deep—or deeper—than the question posed and then answered in detail.

So if someone with only enough time to read a tweet is intrigued enough, they may find they have enough time to read a web feature or even to come to an event. Hey, it still happens.

But isn’t the thin edge of the “complexity” wedge just “dumbing down” the research? No, argues Schwabish. Urban uses these pyramids, he writes, to help its researchers

understand that effectively communicating research is about—to borrow the phrase from authors Dan and Chip Heath—finding the core of the idea. We need to meet people where they are and recognize that not everyone is an academic researcher and not everyone has the same level of understanding or expertise.


Takeaway: The tweet is not the despoliation of your idea. The tweet is your idea — your core idea. That way, if you talk to your target audience and find out they only have a minute or 15 seconds to take in your idea, you can still reach them. And they can reach out for more.

If you’re waiting for the war to come back to you, at your preferred speed…well, we always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?