Helping researchers reach the masses

Around the world, researchers are working in a variety of disciplines. But if no one hears about the work, it’s a lost opportunity to promote the research – and your institution.

Getting the word out, however, requires some practise. Indeed, many researchers present their work at conferences and contribute to peer-reviewed journals, but they may have few opportunities to connect with lay audiences. So how can we support researchers in communicating with those who are NOT in the know, and help their research attract the broader attention it deserves?

Here are some ideas, whether you’re an editor assigning a research story to a writer or a PR professional arranging media interviews:

1) Provide an overview. No one wants to fly blind, so take time to walk a researcher through the storytelling process. (This is especially important if he or she has never been down this road before.) Describe the main message and goals of the story. Where will the article appear? How long is the story? Who is the target audience? Is a photo shoot required? Will they (or won’t they) be given an opportunity to review the story before it is published? Knowing this information in advance can help anyone – not just researchers – to feel more comfortable during an interview. And a better interview leads to a better research story. And a better research story leads to, well, lots of other good things!

2) Pick the top three messages. I learned this tactic years ago when I worked in media relations. And it has served me well ever since. The bottom line: encourage researchers to focus on three key points that they want to get across during an interview. Of course, the conversation may turn to other topics, but it can be helpful for a researcher to have a few points in the proverbial back pocket.

3) Lead with the impact. One of the key points should cover the impact of the research. In fact, I wrote about this concept in a previous post. It’s important that researchers explain the problem that they are trying to address or solve. This information provides much-needed context. For example, what’s so important about this research? Why does it matter?

4) Think “simplifying” not “dumbing down.” I don’t believe you have to water down research to communicate with a lay audience. It is vital, however, for researchers to know the needs of audiences. For instance, in order to grasp the research, do they need to know every jargon-filled detail or are broad strokes sufficient? It’s a little like trying to explain a research project to Uncle Joe during the holidays: keep it simple. Explain to researchers that the goal is to cultivate understanding, not to help Uncle Joe get a PhD in, say, aerospace engineering.

5) Be prepared for (lots of) questions. I recently met with a science writer from a major news agency, and given the complexity of her stories, I expected her to have a solid background in science. Not so, she said. “I just ask a lot of questions.” I can relate to that. During an interview with a researcher, I ask questions until the cows come home. Or at least until I understand the research and feel confident in my ability to explain it to others. Simply put, let researchers know that answering many (many!) questions is part of the journey of getting the story right, and they need to pack patience for the trip.

6) Go public. Encourage researchers to connect with lay audiences on their own. e.g., by participating in public lectures and panel discussions, by joining Twitter and cultivating a following, and by writing a research blog. These activities enable researchers to practise communicating with lay audiences – and see first-hand what piques their interest.

Have some tips of your own? Share them here or drop me a line. I’m happy to hear your thoughts.

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