Know Your Audience: Ensure Your Research Influences the Right People

As an emerging researcher and demographer, I spent the first several years of my Ph.D. focused on publishing, but after a number of conference presentations and published papers, I began to think beyond the publishing process. I wanted to make sure that my research outputs were reaching people who might use them.

When I learned about Population Reference Bureau’s (PRB) Policy Communication Fellows Program, I eagerly applied and was invited for a week-long workshop in Lilongwe, Malawi, in June 2018. This year the Policy Communication Fellows Program partnered with the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), which promotes a culture of evidence-informed decision making to policymakers and program planners. The workshop brought together about 10 researchers from developing countries who were working on issues related to women’s health, adolescent health, and gender-based violence. As expected, most of the us didn’t fully grasp the importance of writing for non-academic purposes. One of the fellowship’s aims is to ensure that our research becomes accessible to others, with less technical jargon we would normally use in our academic writing.

It was a knowledge-packed workshop, with presentations on topics such as the research-to-policy gap, strategic communication, effective presentations, data visualization, principles of policy writing, and conversational writing. I enjoyed all of these modules, but one of my favorites was the module on the research-to-policy gap.

The Research-to-Policy Gap: Researchers and Policymakers Have Different Expectations

One of the main reasons evidence doesn’t get to the appropriate policymakers is that researchers and policymakers have different expectations and goals. They may distrust one another, have a limited understanding of processes and influencers, and different political views and goals. The presenters also highlighted poor communication as a major gap for why research doesn’t often lead to policy change. This poor communication could be a result of limited access to information―a number of graduate students just want to get their thesis marked and may not go further to make sure it reaches the relevant audience. Data overload and use of technical jargon also influence why research may not reach policymakers.

I learned during this module that people in the policy space do not have time to break down most of the technical terms we academics use in our research. It’s important that policymakers can read and understand research at a glance so they can consider it during their policymaking. After talking about the research-to-policy gaps, I understood that working with policymakers during the design of a project would help me target the research for results relevant to specific needs. I am looking forward to designing future studies with the aim of answering policy relevant questions.

Simplicity Is Key to Bridging the Research-to-Policy Gap

Understanding the research-to-policy gap, which we covered early in the program, made the modules that followed about how to bridge that gap very useful. I learned the importance of identifying my audience, which could be those who can directly influence policy on my research and those who can create barriers to these policies being implemented. Some of these audiences could include political or religious leaders, program managers, donors, and media.

As part of bridging the research-to-policy gap, demographic data should be presented in ways that are easy to understand. Data can be difficult to process, and different models can make it even more complicated. However, the use of colors, tables, and graphs can help simplify data and reduce information to its most important points. Good data visualizations of research can have significant social and policy implications because they can help communicate stories and narratives associated with research.

In keeping with this emphasis on simplicity, I particularly enjoyed the conversational writing session that emphasized “less is more.” We had to relearn the use of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. One of the most important things I took away from this module was unlearning how to write impressively. Policymakers are looking for specific content in its simplest form. They want to read engaging material with shorter sentences. The module’s accompanying exercises showed how conversational writing is easy to understand and practice outside the workshop. These exercises taught me the importance of embracing the power of my voice and being myself while writing―and conversational writing is easier to edit compared to my usual academic writing!

During my one week in Lilongwe at the Policy Communications Fellows Program, I learned how to present my research on youth sexual behavior in a simple, straightforward way, and I created a 60-second soundbite that can be used to quickly illustrate the most important aspects of my research. The skills we developed in the workshop will now be applied throughout the year through additional assignments. As I work on these assignments, I will keep in mind these valuable key points from the training:

  • While it’s important to publish as young researchers, it’s even more important that we make our research accessible to the right audience.
  • To make research accessible, use clear communication methods and engage with identified policymakers important for your research.
  • And importantly, always know your audience.