Communicating Research

Readings, tips, and strategies for clear expression

By Usable Knowledge, on June 23, 2017 10:26 AM
Communicating Research: Readings, tips, and strategies for clear expression #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

(Updated from a talk delivered at SxSWedu on March 8, 2017.)

Say it so we all can understand.

Why is that so hard for so many experts? What gets in the way?

Well, a lot: The "expert blind spot" that can prevent people who know a lot from knowing how to explain it to the rest of us. Ego — or, its opposite: insecurity or lack of confidence. The comfort that obscurity brings. Laziness or tradition. Professional norms — being perceived as incorrect or amateurish if you're not using the jargon of your industry. 

All of this is wrong.

In order to bring innovations and new knowledge to scale, so they can make an inpact and improve lives, the innovators and the knowledge-creators have to describe what they do in ways that we can all understand.

As you plan any public communication of your research, ask yourself: Who is my audience? What is the key point of my work? What is the impact I want this work to have?

And this is particularly important in the field of education. The findings that education researchers and policymakers generate can change student outcomes and transform lives. If educators don’t feel equipped to tell that story — to make their findings tell that story — then so much is lost.

So — what are the tools, techniques, tricks of the trade for translating and disseminating research?

Resources That Can Help or Inspire

Need to Keep Yourself Honest?

To Get Started, Ask Three Questions

As you plan any public communication of your research, product, or new venture — whether you plan to write it, speak it, or collaborate with your institution’s communications staff — ask:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What is the key point of my work?
  • What is the impact I want this work to have?

And Some Tips

  • Identify your audience: Who is your work important to (who should it be important to)?
  • What does your audience want to know, and what do they need to know?
  • What are your takeaway messages? Practice: What is the one-sentence description of your project or finding? What is the three-sentence description?
  • Use plain, clear, simplifying language. Avoid jargon (obviously).
  • Be concise.
  • Think about an inverted pyramid as you write about, speak about, or present your project to a broad audience. Make your big points first. Add some detail. Then conclude with a finely honed targeted point. Your sentences and paragraphs should be brief.
  • OR: Think about an iceberg! The part that’s above the surface is where the really broad, accessible, and clear takeaways are living. But obviously, it's what you can’t see, what’s under the water, that's key. That’s your impact (literally, if you’re the Titanic.) That’s your research. That’s your evidence. That’s what backs up your claims — and what supports your takeaways. You can share all that below-the-surface iceberg stuff with audiences who need or want to probe the topic in a deep, full way.
  • No matter what visual metaphor you use, have confidence that it’s OK (and good) to describe your work in ways that people can understand. Know that it’s OK to speak in different levels of detail, and with different language, to different audiences.

See or download a longer (but still-evolving and highly idiosyncratic) version of this list: How to Make Knowledge Usable [PDF]