Using Your Research for Change

Effective communication gives you the means to reach deep into the institutions that make decisions that affect us all, writes M. V. Lee Badgett.

January 13, 2016

“Is a 13-year-old girl selling sex on the streets a criminal?” asked lawyer and women’s studies professor Carrie Baker. In her research on human trafficking laws, Baker came across many cases of young girls who were arrested and convicted of prostitution in the United States while their adult male customers and pimps went unpunished. If these girls had been brought here from other countries, they would have been seen as sexually exploited rather than criminals.

Baker’s law degree and a Ph.D. in women’s studies gave her the scholarly skills to write law review articles that show how “safe harbor” laws are a better approach, providing social services for these exploited girls instead of prosecuting them. But she also wanted to reach a wider audience.

A workshop offered to women’s studies faculty by Ms. magazine opened the door for Baker, where the challenges became clearer. Coming out of the workshop, Baker wrote an article for Ms. on the prosecution of young girls for prostitution. The article won a national journalism award and led to television appearances and public speaking opportunities. People emailed her with more horror stories about girls who had been prosecuted, and she matched up those stories with local activists who were trying to change conditions for those girls in specific cities.

Baker had something to say, and she found a way to convince people to listen. Once they listened, people began to use her research in their efforts for change.

As scholars, we often get involved in public debates. We’re also citizens with a stake in public debates and decisions. Fortunately, we live in a technologically remarkable era that makes it possible to reach the entire world with a single blog post -- at least in theory. The tools are there for scholars to engage with the public directly, if we know how to use them. Effective communication plus a well-developed network give you the means to reach deep into the institutions that make decisions that affect us all.

First, however, we must learn to communicate effectively. The subtitle of a book by Frank Luntz, a communications guru for American conservatives, neatly sums up the specific communications challenge for scholars: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. And what do others often hear when scholars speak? Jargon.

While our jargon gives us almost an universal language within our fields, it’s the biggest barrier to communication with people outside of the university. Back in the 1990s, Michael Warner, now a professor at Yale University, criticized the media attention focused on a set of conservative gay male writers, while he saw exciting ideas from queer theorists being left out of the wider public mix of ideas. On thinking about Warner’s argument at the time, I was struck by the fact that the conservative gay men he critiqued were all professional journalists, while the queer theorists were, well, theorists. Was the lack of attention to the queer theorists a result of their political stance or their theoretical jargon that no one else could understand?

Messages and Talking Points

What’s a message? A message is the core argument or claim that you want some audience to accept, believe or learn. In Luntz’s words, it’s what you want your audience to hear.

A message is not the same thing as a sound bite, although having a bite-size version of your message can be valuable in many contexts. If you can put your message into just a few words or a memorable sentence or phrase, you can fit it into pretty much any context.

In academe, we would call the message a thesis. Here are a few examples of messages related to academic work:

  • To end poverty, we need to create more good jobs and improve access to those jobs.
  • Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and promoting renewable energy won’t hurt the economy -- in fact, it will create more jobs.

These are simple and fairly short. There’s an underlying “should” in each one, since these messages point to the need for some kind of action, and there’s an implicit counterargument to a few. These messages don’t relate to a single study or the work of one scholar. Also, note that all of these messages are centered on a public discussion or debate, not academic theory. They aren’t simple ideas (some might even say these messages are too complex), but they are simply stated.

Now the key question: What’s your message? If you can see the big picture in the area you’re working in after a review of the debate, then you have probably found some places where your ideas or knowledge fit. Those are probably the best places to start developing a message. Over time, you will probably work on many messages, but just start with one.

Also, you don’t need a hundred thousand words to convey a powerful message or two. Think poetry, not essay:

  • Saving our planet will be good for the economy.
  • We will strengthen our environment and our economy by producing renewable energy.
  • Being good stewards of the earth will pay off with stronger economies.

Then consider the context and the hidden meanings you’re expressing. What images does your draft message convey? What images might tap into your audience’s logic, values, or emotions?

Academics get hung up on creating a message because we feel like we must take ownership of it. However, your message does not have to be your own unique creation or contribution. In fact, it usually makes sense to use messages that are similar or even the same as the ones others working in your area are using. If you’ve tracked the debate, you’ve probably already encountered more than one message that’s relevant to your work. Try to identify those messages, and pay attention to how they’re used. Those messages are probably out there because they relate to popular concerns or sentiments and are at least perceived to be powerful influences on people’s beliefs. Also, using existing messages makes your work more relevant to the other people in the debate.

Add Talking Points

Talking points might be simple pieces of reasoning, facts, stories or even a few details of potential policies, but they should all directly support your message. Each one should be short, usually no more than a sentence -- two at most.

Talking points provide great notes and reminders to review before talking to a journalist, meeting with a policy maker or going on a radio show. They might provide an outline for an op-ed essay. You can share them with others who want to use your argument. An example of a talking point might be:

  • Human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, have caused climate change.
  • Without action, climate change will lead to extreme weather events and other harmful effects on the economy.

One of the good things about being clear on your own message is that you don’t have to know everything about an issue to make a difference. Your message is your main angle or contribution, and you can pull conversations back to it when you need to. Stay open to other messages that might emerge from your experiences in the debate, and think about ways to refine and improve the messages you use and hear. Messages evolve over time because people and debates evolve.

Framing: The Message Behind the Words

The presentation of a message is what is known as framing. Sociologist Steve Boutcher studies social movements, and he teaches his students that a message frame is like a window frame. By directing your eye, the window shapes what you’re allowed to see, blocking some things and revealing others.

Our brains interpret words and arguments in ways that fit our worldview, or the moral values that guide us. Luntz tells conservatives to talk about “tax relief” instead of “tax cuts,” for example. “Tax relief” sounds like a deserved break for overburdened taxpayers, while “tax cuts” are often promised but rarely delivered. Likewise, “drilling for oil” calls to mind images of oil rigs that sometimes have horrific leaks, while “exploring for energy” suggests heroic efforts with clean, innovative technologies to fuel the economy.

To some, framing might seem manipulative, a tool of propaganda. And yet the frames themselves already exist. Anytime we use language to represent or convey ideas, we are using some kind of frame, whether we are conscious of it or not. Our academic theories create frames for our research. If we aren’t conscious of the scientific frames we’re using to communicate about our research, we’re leaving it to other people to determine how it gets interpreted in a public debate.

Also, there is no framing formula for communication that will magically make people agree with us. In my view, effective communication means getting people to consider our ideas and research seriously and carefully, not necessarily to agree with us. The quality of an idea still matters. Nevertheless, the point of framing is that good ideas will have more life and power when framed in a way that fits the worldviews of the audience.

A group of scholars involved in the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University conducted experiments to measure the impact of research on public opinion among a wide range of controversial topics, such as gun control, climate change, adoption by gay parents and the use of nanotechnology. The experiments asked whether research findings actually change public opinion. The bad news is that people mainly believe research findings that support their existing beliefs about the world, and findings that are inconsistent with beliefs can lead to a hardening of positions on controversial topics. The good news is that research can influence opinion, but effective communication takes planning and thought on our parts.

What are some helpful lessons for more effective communication by engaged scholars? First, to get an audience to pay careful attention to credible research that conflicts with their pre-existing views, we should present findings in a way that fits into a listener’s value system. When research subjects in the Cultural Cognition Project saw messages and a messenger aligned with their own values, they were more likely to understand and sometimes to accept research findings on controversial issues. An extension of that point is that we should present findings in different ways to appeal to different audiences.

The second lesson is that researchers can effectively use “vouching,” or the presentation of research findings by trusted messengers, as a strategy for affecting options. Vouching draws on the power of networks by getting our research in the hands of people who have credibility and connections with people whose values might differ from our own. Sometimes those people will also be “validators,” who attest to the value and credibility of your ideas and findings.

The cultural cognition work also suggests that messengers who use research to express surprising positions to people of a particular value system are especially powerful and might even contribute to the convergence of polarized positions. In the gays-in-the-military debate, one scholar used surprising validators, such as retired generals and admirals, to carry research findings into the public realm.

Handing off our ideas to other messengers might seem risky. One of the hardest things for scholars is letting go of control over their own ideas and research findings. My idealistic advice is to do the communications work and then set your ideas and findings free! Let them take on a life of their own, putting them in front of people who can appreciate their value. Those other messengers will pick them up and make them persuasive to audiences that would never pay attention to or believe an ivory-tower professor. If messengers use or express ideas in ways that aren’t exactly what you would do or say, you can contact them and give them feedback, or use other options to correct or extend their presentation of the ideas. But usually that won’t be necessary.

In sum, your research will reach more deeply into the public realm and into the hearts and minds of your audiences if you communicate strategically, using clear messages and appropriate messengers.


M. V. Lee Badgett is professor of economics and director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This essay is adapted from The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, being published this month by New York University Press.


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