Turning research into action: A dialogue with decision-makers (PART TWO)

5.15.2017
Commentary
People looking over charts and graphs

A few weeks ago, we sat down with a group of local decision-makers to find out how they think about and use research, and what facilitates or hampers acting on research to develop evidence-based policies. In Part One, we discussed the pragmatic and ideological challenges faced by policymakers and other stakeholders. Now, we’ll share some of their advice for communicating and disseminating your work to non-researchers more effectively.

Going beyond the research paper

Attracting the attention of a policymaker, advocate, or other stakeholder isn’t always easy. To start, ask these four questions:

  1. What language are we using to communicate our evidence in?
  2. What format are we using to communicate our evidence?
  3. What platforms are we using to communicate our evidence?
  4. Are we using the full range of resources available to us?

Being thoughtful about the answers to these questions will help make your research more accessible and increase the chances that a policymaker will engage with you and your research.

Language

The language we use must be clear, non-technical, and easily understood by non-researchers. In more practical terms, this also means avoiding the use of acronyms, abbreviations, and other forms of jargon. It may sound simple, but it can be challenging to even identify jargon in our everyday speech.

Take the phrase “social determinants of health.” While many researchers intuitively understand what it means, non-researchers or even researchers outside of certain fields may not. One of our decision-makers noted that he routinely uses the phrase “basic human needs” as a more meaningful replacement phrase. If you can’t avoid jargon, do your best to provide a definition and concrete examples of what you mean.

Format

We understand that it takes an incredible amount of work to publish research in a peer-reviewed journal, and that growing a portfolio of published work is a critical aspect of fostering relationships and building a reputation among your peers and the public. Unfortunately, many policymakers and other stakeholders lack access to academic journals or the time and/or expertise to digest a lengthy research paper. To capture their attention, our decision-makers urged that you also translate your key research findings in ways that distill their relevance to policy and that include visually compelling graphics. 

“Data visualization” can take many forms – and not all of them require a designer or specialist. Create a simple infographic, share a clear graph or map, or even pull together a bulleted list (with no more than three to five items) to capture actionable key findings. As one policymaker put it:

“You may not want to reduce your research to one pie graph, but it works…  A picture is worth 1,000 words, and a graph is worth a 1,000 page technical report.”

Ideally, one of these visual “extras” will sway a policymaker enough to take the time to read your full article, invite you to present public testimony, or reach out to you for an in-person discussion.

Platform

To reach groups outside of our own networks, consider what avenues of communication those groups are using. Our decision-makers identified a number of sources where they organically discover research findings, including through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and NPR.

Decision-makers also turn to trusted advocacy groups, philanthropy, large research institutions or public health organizations for the latest news. By partnering with these types of organizations to help amplify your research, you are much more likely to get in front of the right people.

Reach out for help

For the most part, researchers are not trained in communications or graphic and web design, but others are. As one decision maker told us, “Communication is a skill that you can build. Build it for yourself or work with someone who already has it.”

Leverage your network to disseminate your research. The communications teams at your home institutions may be able to help you ensure you are using appropriate, jargon-free language. They might assist in the creation of a one-pager or a series of accessible presentation slides. They can pitch your research to media or facilitate informal meetings with a few key journalists. They can also help by sharing your research through your organization’s social media channels. Finally, if you’re able to invest in the skills of a graphic designer, they can be enormously helpful in distilling your research into infographics or other image-based media that can be shared via multiple outlets.

What does your research mean for someone’s life?

Increasingly, decision-makers are being asked to do more with less. Ensuring that they have a strong, accessible knowledge base from which to build policy is critical. At P4A and E4A, it is our mission to foster transdisciplinary research on policies and programs that impact population health, well-being, and equity, and deliver those insights to those who will use them to advance a Culture of Health in this country. Let’s never forget that our job is to find – and effectively communicate – those policies and strategies that will enable everyone the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.

One of our decision-makers summed it up well:

“Even if you have all the numbers, do you understand what it means for someone’s life?”

We are enormously grateful to Debra Miller (The Council of State Governments), Tom Walton (KentuckyOne Health), John Gribbins (Noe Middle School), and Rebecca Hollenbach (Louisville Center for Health Equity), for their insights and guidance.

Photo by MIND AND I/Shutterstock

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