Five Things We Learned About Communicating Research (and one bonus thing)

Is your research having the impact you want? If you’re like most of us, your answer is probably no. Breaking through today’s crowded landscape of research, data and policy analysis is no easy task. We all know that we need an effective communications strategy and we know that we need better tactics to help us execute on that strategy. Doing that regularly—with processes that are systematic and sustainable—is easier said than done. And getting researcher buy-in is still another thing entirely. In the most recent DC Breakfast Club, Jonathan Schwabish, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and founder of PolicyViz, walked us through the Urban Institute’s multilayered approach to communicating research—tips that they’ve very helpfully packaged up in a new book called Elevate the Debate.

1. Match channels to depth of research

In order to select your communication channels, you first have to decide what depth of research you want to communicate. Need to share every last detail? Then you probably want a technical report with a methodology section. Is it enough to get some specific facts and findings into the general conversation? Then maybe you want an op-ed or commentary.

The Urban team approaches depth of research as a pyramid.

But depth of research isn’t the only consideration. That’s because the more technical the depth of your research, the smaller your audience will get. For example, you will reach the broadest audience by communicating very little depth via social media.

Whichever communication medium you select, it’s crucial to remember that everything you communicate at the top of the pyramid via social media should draw from something more technical on the bottom of the pyramid.

2. Build your audience

Researchers are their own best advocates. Sure, the communications team can add considerable extra push to good research. But the best outreach strategies are team efforts. That starts with building audiences for research. And here’s a place where researchers can really help themselves.

That starts by meeting people where they’re at, being strategic about what you say, and taking charge of translating your research in ways that are relatable to the audience you’re trying to reach. 

Remember, you have a big box of tools you can use to build your audience (e.g. data viz, blogging, social media etc.) depending on who you’re trying to reach. Your sweet spot will be to build an audience of policymakers who have both high influence but also strong relationships with you. 

3. When it comes to data viz, the words are just as important as the charts

A 2015 study on memorability shows that people recall titles and text descriptions of visualizations more than they do the actual graph or visualization itself.  It also shows that a title that includes the main message of the visualization can make the entire difference between whether a visualization is recalled correctly or not. So that means it’s really important to use active titles! A title should tell people what they will get out of the graph to help them better understand what your graph will communicate.

Consider this example:

It’s something you might see in an academic journal—or, let’s be honest here—in a lot of think tank research reports.

Source: Pew Research Center

Contrast that with this alternative, from the Pew Research Center.

This is an active title—one that helps readers understand what the data in the chart is showing.

4. Create audience-centric presentations

Better presentations communicate more effectively than poorly constructed presentations. 

That’s no surprise. 

To keep your slide deck from looking like a research paper, it’s helpful to remember that your presentation isn’t about you or even the research. It’s about your audience

The main goal of your presentation should be to convince your audience that the ideas, hypotheses, and conclusions you’re presenting are valid. So how do you plan a presentation to be more audience-centric? 

One helpful suggestion is to use less text on your slides so you don’t overwhelm anyone with so many words that they miss the main point.  

Another tip is to end your presentation with your key takeaway rather than a final slide saying “Questions?” Since your last slide will likely be on the screen while concluding remarks are given, use the opportunity to impart the message you want your audience to walk away with.

5. Use Social media correctly

We’ve mentioned social media several times in this post. That’s because social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are effective tools to build audiences that matter and make them aware of your think tank’s work. 

Before trying to build your social media network, it helps to first curate good content. For example, before following other people on Twitter it’s a good idea to put out 20 to 30 really good tweets. 

This will allow you to build up a portfolio of quality work so potential followers can see that you’re active, relevant, and have interesting things to say. If you’re looking for ideas, sharing graphs, charts, and GIFs from your think tank’s work can make for some smart tweets/posts!

Bonus: Put it all together

Does your team have a communications strategy? Pulling some of the ideas mentioned above into your strategy will help reach the audiences you build. 

Before you jump in and start producing beautiful visualizations, graphs with active titles, and clever tweets, it’s a good idea to take a step back and first think about how you want to reach your audience. Come up with a policy impact plan that outlines who you’re trying to reach and what you want them to do once they’ve learned about your organization’s research. Pinpointing your audience and what you want them knowing and doing will go a long way in helping you effectively allocate your communication team’s resources. More than that, though, it will keep you focused on your goals so your think tank can have the broadest impact. 


Amanda joined Soapbox as a lead content designer after spending several years as a consultant helping the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, improving their communications and outreach. In her role with Soapbox she takes a user-centered approach: identifying what users need and figuring out how best to communicate it. She holds an MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Johns Hopkins University.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in breakfast club, Events

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: