With the new academic year underway, many scholars are thinking about how they want to spend their time in the coming months. As you’re mapping out your research plans for the year, it’s worth considering an important but often overlooked part of the research process: communication.
You’ve probably already considered what academic conferences you’ll present at and which journals you might submit a paper to this year. But have you thought about how you’ll connect with audiences beyond your academic peers? Most policy makers, practitioners, journalists, business leaders and members of the general public won’t be attending those academic conferences or reading the scholarly journals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about your work. You just need to reach them where they are. With the right planning, your research can have a broader impact on the world outside the university walls.
Whether you’re new to research communication or you’ve become something of an expert at sharing your research with the public, it’s great to start the year by (re-)evaluating your goals and identifying what you want to prioritize. Here are five questions to get you started, based on my experience collaborating with hundreds of scholars to help them share their ideas and expertise with mainstream audiences.
- Why do you want to communicate your research and expertise to a broader audience?
Before you start any project, it’s essential to get clear on your goals. Yet I often see scholars jump into research communication without a clear sense of why they’re doing it. Without defined goals, it’s easy to be drawn in by the flashiest wins, like scoring coverage in a national outlet or attracting followers on social media. And while a headline in The Washington Post or 10,000 followers on Twitter are great objectives, if you’re aiming to influence your city council’s decisions about public transportation, an op-ed in your local paper might be much more important. By understanding your goals first, the right strategy and activities for achieving your objectives will become much clearer.
- Who do you want to influence with your research and expertise?
What you say and how you say it depends on whom you are speaking to, so it’s critical to know who your audience is before you start thinking about how best to reach them. If your goal is to influence a narrow group, your communication approach, target outlets and relevant platforms will look different than if you’re hoping to sway the broader American public. For example, the same piece of research on reducing the transmission of COVID-19 would be communicated very differently depending on whether you’re trying to influence public policy, inform the work of health-care practitioners, guide everyday people to keep themselves safe or encourage funders to support additional research on the topic.
- Where can you reach your target audience and achieve impact?
The best way to reach your intended audience is to go to the places where they already consume information. Consider what content formats (articles, videos, podcasts, social media, infographics, etc.) and media outlets or social media platforms are going to be most relevant for your audience. Remember that effective science communication is a two-way street, and you should look for opportunities to learn from your audience and understand what they care about rather than just pushing information at them.
- How does your research and expertise intersect with what your audience cares about right now?
If you want people to care about your ideas, you must connect to the issues, values and concerns that are already important to them. For example, people may not think clean water matters, but if they understand its effect on their children’s health, their ears will perk up. It’s also important to think creatively about how your research applies to what’s happening in the world right now, especially if you want coverage in mainstream news outlets. During the pandemic, my organization, Footnote, worked with experts on topics like supply chain management and digital education to apply their research to the questions that were currently on people’s minds, like how health-care providers were going to get the supplies they needed and how online schooling was affecting young people.
- What does a research communication win look like?
Finish your planning by stitching this all together into a concrete vision for what research communication success could look like this year. Is it crafting a blog post or local op-ed to get some writing experience under your belt? Building your follower base on social media so you have an audience to learn from and share your ideas with? Publishing an article in a well-known media outlet that you can share with funders or use to score a meeting with policy makers about your work? The wins that come to mind might not feel achievable yet. They might not end up being the best place for you to start your research communication efforts. But they will help inspire you and point your compass in the right direction as you move from planning into action.
Now that you’ve answered these five questions, it’s time to pick your first communication project and get going! There are a ton of resources out there to get you started, from places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the #scicomm community on Twitter and our very own Footnote blog here on Inside Higher Ed.
We also recommend looking for outside support, because most academics don’t have the time or experience to do this entirely on their own. That could be a group of peers who are also working to share their research and expertise with a broader audience, the communications staff from your institution or department, or an outside organization like mine that collaborates with academics to communicate their work. Whatever path you choose, taking the time to ponder the five questions above is a great place to start.
Diana Brazzell is the co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, a communications group that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience. She collaborates with scholars and academic institutions to translate their research into accessible, engaging op-eds and articles for outlets such as The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, The Hill, Newsweek, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. If you’d like to learn more about how to increase the impact and reach of your work, please contact her at email@example.com.