How researchers get heard

Turning Curiosity into Impact

When you’re translating or explaining a new piece of research or a research-based idea, you need to keep three dimensions in mind:

  1. Format/attention span;
  2. Where existing audiences and target audiences feed; and
  3. Your audiences’ essential questions — i.e., their curiosity.

It’s not enough to say: “We’re doing a video explainer of our paper.” Why video? For whom? Where will you post it? Why an explainer as opposed to, say, ways to apply your findings to policy?

Tedious, perhaps. Extra work. But you wouldn’t undertake research without knowing how your research question filled a gap in the literature. Why would you undertake research communication without an understanding of how it fills needs for your audiences?

Most researchers grasp that different audiences feed in different places and their strategy has to account for that range of habitats.

They also grasp that they need to spread the wealth around via different formats (some people like video; some people like podcasts) as well as for different attention spans.

But what about the curiosity dimension? How are you answering the questions your audiences will have about your research — well before they ask them?

Jon Fisher, a scientist with the Pew Charitable Trusts and a list member, and colleagues published a paper in Conservation Science and Practice in May on how researchers can reduce many of the barriers decision makers feel they face in using research. Jon also took the various comms products that accompanied the paper’s launch and assembled them into a list of resources.

Jon emailed me recently and asked me how this list might be better organized in an email he was sending to colleagues and stakeholders. As with many resource lists, his original list was grouped by format and time investment:

  1. The full paper;
  2. Short summaries of the paper;
  3. Text interviews; and
  4. Webinar video.

My first recommendation was to group by time commitment — because that is an essential question your audiences will always have: How much time do I have, and how much do I want to allocate to this? That question will almost always supersede format preference if we have a choice of time commitments.

My later recommendation was to group by essential questions the resources answered — for instance:

  • Why did we write this paper? See this interview.
  • What are the biggest needs we hope this paper helps meet? See this science brief.
  • What are examples of our recommendations in action? See this summary.

Instead of just choosing one option based on our time or format, we now have multiple options based on our curiosity. We’re more likely to engage with more than one of those options, because we likely have more than one question to be answered. 

Jon liked my recommendation. Here’s his revised resource list in response.

Why wouldn’t you do a small suite of content like this proactively, for your new research or research-based idea? Even a FAQ? Sample question: “Where does our paper or idea advance the literature or knowledge?” The answer is in your paper, of course — or it should be. But nonspecialists don’t want the answer in the recondite language you use in your paper.

Takeaway: By all means, do your video explainer (if you have the time, money and resources). But don’t forget to ask yourself: What will they be curious about once they encounter my research or idea? And how will my explainer and promotional content cultivate that curiosity into path of engagement and impact?