Urban Wire Use the “Pyramid Philosophy” to Better Communicate Your Research
Jonathan Schwabish
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Great research—whether it comes from academia, nonprofit organizations, or business thought leaders—needs a plan to make an impact. A good communications strategy can ensure that the biggest audience, and ultimately the right audience, engages with the findings and applies them.

The Urban Institute’s communications team structures dissemination efforts around what we call the “pyramid philosophy,” which pairs the complexity of research with the size of the audience.

This pair of pyramids helps researchers understand the value of communicating their work and how communications efforts are not intended to cheapen or dumb down their work, but rather to get it in the hands of people who can use it.

This and other strategies are explained in a new book by Urban’s communications team, Elevate the Debate: A Multilayered Approach to Communicating Your Research, coming out in January 2020.

The pyramid philosophy

There are myriad ways to communicate research: reports, briefs, interviews, blog posts, social media, presentations, and more. Not all approaches may be appropriate for all research content.

Think of these different output types not as a list of options, but as a hierarchy. Communications efforts should not pit one type of audience against another or trade sophistication for simplification. Rather, communicating research requires a multilayered approach.

On the one side of our pyramid philosophy is complexity, where this multilayered approach begins. At the bottom is the foundation of rigorously conducted research, typically a dense, technical report, such as a white paper. As we work our way up, the products become simpler and more accessible.

We pair the complexity pyramid with another pyramid showing the size of the audience. It’s not surprising that only a few people are reading a working paper and only a few more are reading a journal article.

The audience for these products may be small; the reader must make it through pages of methodology, literature review, and analysis that spans pages of formulas and tables before getting to the findings.

Many reading the paper may not have the expertise to glean the author’s intended insights. But more people are reading briefs and fact sheets, and possibly many more are reading op-eds, commentaries, and blog posts based on that paper. And possibly hundreds, maybe thousands, are reading the tweet or the Facebook post.

Putting it all together

Here’s the key: every product on that pyramid links to one below it, grounded in in-depth, sophisticated analysis.

Every blog post links to underlying evidence and a report. Every web feature includes the option to download a dataset or report. Every tweet finds its way back to a more in-depth analysis that provides evidence for claims made at each level of the pyramid. The data are available for the user who wants to dig deeper. Evidence is as deep—or deeper—than the question posed and then answered in detail.

We have used the pyramid diagram with researchers throughout Urban and with countless researchers across multiple fields, from economics to sociology to social work to international development.

It helps researchers understand that effectively communicating research is about—to borrow the phrase from authors Dan and Chip Heath—finding the core of the idea. We need to meet people where they are and recognize that not everyone is an academic researcher and not everyone has the same level of understanding or expertise.

We also work with researchers and other groups to devise comprehensive strategies to communicate their research and analysis. Just as we are all taught to write an outline for our first book report, we should also plan, outline, and strategize how we want to communicate our work to our target audiences.

This may be through better data visualizations or presentations, targeted social media use and outreach to different audiences, or being better equipped to talk to reporters and bloggers; these are all ways researchers can learn to communicate with different and broader audiences.

We share this and other lessons in our new book coming out in early 2020. You may not have a communications department to help you get your content out in the world. You may need to do this on your own. But communications shouldn’t be painful, and it doesn’t have to be difficult.

With a few simple lessons on how to make better graphs, give better presentations, write better blog posts, and give better interviews, you can help get your research into the hands of people who can use it to make discoveries, empower communities, change organizations, and effect change.

Research Methods Research methods and data analytics