Urban Wire Four tips to help researchers communicate their work
Jonathan Schwabish
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Researchers are not known for being good communicators. We tend to write in long, convoluted sentences sprinkled with jargon. We focus on research reports and journal articles, hoping this will give us credence in our areas of expertise, promotions, and tenure. But all this usually doesn’t help decisionmakers, policymakers, and other stakeholders implement our work.

At the Association for Public Policy and Management (APPAM) conference earlier this month, members of the Urban Institute’s communications team conducted our “Research to Policy Boot Camp: A Communications Toolkit for Researchers.” The five-hour crash course aimed to help researchers better communicate their research and analysis. From the various talks, panels, and deep dives, four major themes came through.

First, know your audience.

This may seem obvious, but many researchers do not think hard enough about who they are trying to reach. Other researchers or experts may have the time or interest to read your 35-page paper, but this might not be true of the general public, who is often key to raising awareness about new research. A short summary, a good graph, or a captivating tweet can help introduce broader audiences to new research and draw them toward more complex details.

Second, share your key take-aways.

This also might seem obvious, but how many times have you watched a speaker try to present everything about their six-month study in a 15-minute presentation? Or show all the graphs in their report? Instead, consider leading with your bottom-line, most important findings, and prioritize helping your reader, user, or audience member understand them.

Third, narrow your outreach and implementation focus.

Yes, getting the House Ways and Means Committee to use your research may have a big impact, but the probability of that happening is small. Connecting with your town’s mayor or city council, or a practitioner or civic group, may be a more likely avenue for many researchers to explore.

Your return on investment may be higher if you focus on people and groups that can directly implement your ideas, proposals, and research.

Fourth, communicating research is not easy, and it’s not a one-off.

Putting a strategic communication plan in practice takes time and effort. You don’t simply show up to Congress and hand out copies of your research report. You don’t post an interactive data visualization and get millions of page views overnight.

You need to cultivate relationships with policymakers and stakeholders. You need to find the projects and products that will resonate and help your audience do their jobs better, find insights, and make discoveries. Simply putting something out in the world and hoping people will find it and use it is not a viable communication strategy for researchers.

One of the goals of Urban’s communications team is to help our researchers do a better job communicating their work. We help them produce precise reports, concise blog posts, compelling presentations, and clear data visualizations. As we have honed our approach with our internal partners, we have started teaching others how to improve the way they communicate their work. Better policy comes from better research, and that research gets into the hands of people who can use it by knowing how to best reach them.

Research Areas Education