Webinar: Writing About Population Research for Non-Scientists

Have you ever wondered how to get your research into the hands of policymakers, or wished your findings were known by a wider audience? PRB and the Association of Population Centers (APC) organized a webinar to highlight ways to expand the reach of your research by distilling your findings into messages and formats tailored for non-technical audiences, including policymakers and the media. Panelists from Syracuse University and PRB describe how to write an effective research brief, common pitfalls in writing for non-technical audiences, and using social media to communicate about your research.


Date: March 7, 2024, 2:00-3:00 p.m. ET

Moderator: Diana Elliott, Vice President, U.S. Programs, PRB


Support for this event was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Diana Elliott, moderator: Hi everyone. Thank you for joining. Welcome to today’s today’s webinar on writing about population research for non-scientists. I’m Diana Elliott, Vice President of U.S. Programs. Though this webinar was organized by the Population Reference Bureau and the Association of Population Centers, with funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

I’m pleased to introduce four speakers to today’s event. Shannon Monette is the Lerner Chair in Public Health Promotion and Population Health at Syracuse University, and we’ll cover some of the benefits of writing research briefs and examples of impact at the Lerner Center. Following Shannon, we’ll have Beth Jarosz, Senior Program Director; Paul Scommegna, Senior Writer; and Mark Mather, Associate Vice President, all in the U.S. Programs department at PRB. And we’ll be providing some additional guidance for writing briefs and bridging the research and policy gap.

We’re going to save the Q&A till the end, and we encourage people to use the raise-hand feature in Zoom and to unmute yourself to ask questions. So for those of you who aren’t familiar with where this is in zoom, if you go to reactions at the bottom of the screen, you’ll see that there’s a raise hand feature under that reactions tab. The webinar is also being recorded and will send you a link to the recording and the slides in a few days. Closed captions are also available. Participants can turn on captions by selecting the Show Captions option from the Zoom control bar. Now I’ll turn it over to Shannon.

Shannon Monette: Thank you, Diana. Welcome, everybody. I’m looking forward to the conversation that we’re going to have today about writing population research for non-scientists, in addition to being Lerner Chair at Syracuse University. As Diana mentioned, I’m also the director of the Center for Policy Research here and a professor in the sociology department. And we have two brief series, one through the Learner Center and one through the Center for Policy Research. And they’ve both been quite successful. So what I’m going to do is, um, provide a motivation for writing briefs. Presumably you all think that it’s important and that’s why you’re here. But I’m going to give you a few reasons why I think that, um, writing policy and research briefs can be really exciting. Uh, I’ll talk a little bit about the purposes of and audiences for these briefs. I’m going to provide a couple of overarching tips about structure. In a couple of examples. Uh, Paola will cover more detail later about some tips for writing effective briefs. And then I’ll finish up by sharing some examples of how some of our briefs have resulted in broader attention, uh, or impact that that’s been really exciting.

Uh, so first, why might we want to disseminate our research to nonacademic audiences or non-scientists? Well, one reason is that it’s just super fun. Um, I think it’s way more fun than writing academic papers or presenting academic talks, because you can be more free in your language and your style. You can be provocative. Um, it provides the opportunity to meet different kinds of people that you might not otherwise meet and interact with. Another good reason is to help break down barriers between academics, between scientists, and between the public, and show people outside of academia that what we do can be relevant and is relevant to their lives. Um, it’s also an opportunity to show the public that we’re people to into to help build trust, which is particularly important during an era where there’s declining trust in academics and experts. Another reason is that your dean, your department chair, your research center director, your parent, your partners can use it to show off your work. Um, provost and deans love this kind of stuff because it’s really easy for them to share with donors. Um, and rather than an academic article which can be 40 pages or even longer if you consider the supplementary materials, these short 2 to 3 page briefs or something that you know the dean can share with alumni or with their advisory board members, your parents might read these things too, like mom probably isn’t going to share your academic article with their friends, but she might post your brief on Facebook. Another reason is that it’s a way to get really timely findings out more quickly than an academic journal, you know? We all know it can take forever for academic articles to come out. Sometimes we’re working on time pressing issues, and we want people to know what’s happening right now, so it’s a really good outlet for that.

Um, briefs can also get you research into the hands of unexpected audiences. It can launch unexpected opportunities. I’ll talk about some of our successes and those unexpected opportunities at the end of my presentation here. Um, and of course, these things can generate a lot of impact. They may… They may actually be your best shot at someone paying attention to and using the hard work that you’ve done. Um, academic articles are behind a paywall. They’re long, they’re dense, they’re difficult to get through. But briefs and things like op eds even get to main points quickly so they can have a lot of impact.

Uh, and so in terms of like, what are the purposes of research briefs or policy briefs and who are the audiences? Well, the purpose of briefs are to translate your findings and disseminate your findings in publicly accessible and easily digestible formats, toward some purpose, towards some action. So that purpose or that action might be to enhance knowledge or raise awareness. It could be that you want to change hearts and minds about some topic. It could be you actually want to change behaviors or practices. Um, or it could be that you want to influence policy debates. Um, the audience for these are varied. I think it’s, it’s somewhat important going into the writing that you have a target audience in mind. So your target audience may be policymakers at the national level, the state level, the local level. Um, your audience may be practitioners. If you’re writing about health care, for example, um, your audience may be reporters. A lot of faculty actually use these briefs for their undergraduate classes. So the audience may be students and the audience might also just be the general public.

Um, what I like to tell our authors when they’re writing briefs is, would your uncle Bob understand what you’re writing here, what you’re saying here? Um, so in terms of writing style, these audiences are important to keep in mind. Just a few words about brief structure. Paola is going to discuss a suggested approach for writing briefs for PRB and a checklist of things that they consider at PRB, but I thought I’d quickly provide some suggestions for how you might think about structuring a brief. And here I’ve just provided an example of our brief template that we use at the Syracuse University Center for Policy Research. Generally, policy briefs or research briefs, um, summarize 1 or 2 main findings or big picture takeaways. They’re not bogged down with a lot of detail or nuance. Is this 1 or 2 big things that you want your audience to know? They’re usually 2 to 4 pages. Sometimes they’re one page. They’re definitely not 20 pages. Briefs are, as they’re called, very brief. Um, they should provide a short intro of the problem and why your reader should care about this problem. Our briefs, we have the authors provide 1 or 2 main research findings, include visualizations if possible. Pictures are worth a lot. And also our briefs include implications for policy. And I know that that PR, er, PRB’s briefs do as well. Now, what you don’t see here is theory, a lit review, or a lengthy data or methods section for our briefs. We do include a very short data and methods section at the very end. Um, they’re very short, and we just sort of just describe what the data set is, the, the years that are represented, the sample size, and maybe a couple of sentences about variables. But then we direct the reader to a published journal article, if there’s one that exists from which the brief is, is summarizing findings.

So just show you a couple of examples from brief series here at SU. So, this first one is a brief that was led by my colleague here, Jennifer Karras Montes. You can see it’s just three pages. It provides a nice snappy title: Democratic erosion predicts rising deaths from drug poisoning and infectious disease. So, it gives the main takeaway right there in the title. It includes a couple of key findings so that if someone only read those key findings, they would know right away, uh, everything they need to know about that. The takeaways of this brief, you’ll see there’s a short introduction about the problem. Um, there are a couple of really easily understandable figures in here. And then at the very end, there is a section about what should be done about this problem. What are the policy implications? And in this section, we ask our authors to be concrete to identify the actors. Um, they’re not the place where you advocate for future research. They’re the place where you advocate for changes, for policy or practice. And I think you can be provocative here. Um, it’s okay that you didn’t study a specific policy. You’re the expert. You can speak to what you think the implications are of what you found.

Here’s just another quick example. This one is from our Center for Policy Research brief series. Again, similar sort of format. We have a snappy title, key findings, um, an easily understandable figure, a couple of sections with a little bit of information about the findings and then, um, what the policy implications are here. And so again, just notice the title and notice the headings. They provide statements about the key takeaways and the conclusions. I wanted to just quickly give you a couple of examples, um, of the difference between academic writing and public language. Okay. So, the way that we’re trained to write for journal articles is academics is not the way that we want to write for public audiences. In fact, I would actually say that I would prefer the writing for public audiences, even for academic journal articles. But, um, people might fight me on that. So, the academic text here is on the left, the public brief text is on the right. And this is from an article that, uh, coauthored with some colleagues here at SU. And you can see this lengthy academic text, um, we’re using technical language in it, things like controlling for confounders, estimated models, um, county and state level data, just all kinds of technical information that a public audience may not understand or care about. Compare that to the short end text from the brief, and we’ve condensed all of that academic language into a very short sentence that says what this brief does in very clear and simple language. It’s much shorter, it’s much simpler, and it still delivers the intent of the research. We also present visually results differently in academic publications versus briefs. So this is just an example of how we converted a complicated technical table of our findings into a simpler figure that tells the exact same story. The table, you’ll notice, uses terms like counterfactual and IMR, which is the infant mortality rate. The figure just shows different minimum wage levels and number of infant lives saved at each different level of minimum wage, so it provides the same information but in a simpler format.

This is a similar example from a paper in a brief written by Andrew London. Another one of my colleagues here at SU. And this table shows a lot of numbers with various symbols. This is from his academic paper. There are odds ratios in here. There are confidence intervals and p values. Um, which is great. This is what we want for academic papers and this is what reviewers demand. But for the brief, the bar chart shows simple probabilities of the outcome. Much easier for a policymaker or reporter or for your Uncle Bob to understand and digest.

So I’ll finish up just by talking about some successes that we’ve experienced from our from our brief series. We’ve had lots of media attention from places like NPR and CBS News and New York Times and in many other outlets. Um, we’ve gotten attention from the public. So random readers will write in to our authors to thank them for writing the brief. We get a lot more of those than we get, like, the nasty emails. Those happen once in a while, too, depending on the topic and how controversial it is. But we get a lot more just random, you know, my daughter experiences this thing. Or thank you so much for writing about this. Or like, what do you think about what’s going on with this thing? And in my city, um, we’ve also had attention from policymakers. So one of our, our graduate students here in the Lerner Center, for example, wrote a brief a couple of summers ago that that ended up being shared with a staffer for a New York state senator here. Uh, and from that, our student was invited to testify at a New York State Senate subcommittee hearing on aging, which was really exciting for her. Of course, um, one of our Center affiliates has been asked to participate in congressional briefings and give Senate testimony as a result of her briefs on veteran food insecurity. And you never know when, when this kind of thing might happen. It doesn’t happen with all briefs, but I think it’s more likely to happen with briefs than with, with academic articles, because they’re so accessible and easily digestible and people can read them in a couple of minutes there.

Um, there are also unexpected invitations and benefits that come from, from writing briefs. And I’ll just give you an example from my own experience, one of the very first briefs I ever wrote was for the Carsey School of Public Policy at University of New Hampshire, and it was on rural urban differences and adolescent opioid misuse. Now, that brief was based on a peer reviewed, published journal article. So I had the article published, and then one of my colleagues, Ken Johnson at Carsey School, said, you know, why don’t you turn this into a brief? He, he had done a lot of these and had a lot of success. So I wrote this brief. They published it through the Carsey School. And then that led to an invitation to attend a conference at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. Like, these people paid for me to fly to Vienna to give a presentation on this, this topic that I was doing research on, not because they found my academic journal article even though it existed, but because they found my brief. Um, so it was, you know, a really exciting opportunity this, you know, working class kid from rural upstate New York gets to go to Vienna, Austria, which was super cool. And I’ve had similar experiences from other briefs. So I wrote a brief while it was at Penn State on, uh, deaths of despair and support for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. And that led to a lot of media attention. But it also led to, um, this research director from this organization called the Institute for New Economic Thinking calling me up and saying, we want to give you some grant money to study this topic more. It’s, like, unheard of. It doesn’t happen. People don’t just call you and say, we want to give you money. But, but he did. And in addition to, you know, that that grant that I got to conduct more research on that topic, that organization also paid for me to, um, to go to Trento, Italy, and to Edinburgh, Scotland, to give presentations on this topic.

So again, you never know when these things are going to happen. Um, it depends a lot on the topic. It depends on who sees your brief. But I think that these types of opportunities on anticipated benefits are more likely to happen when you’re writing in a style that’s accessible for people outside of academia. So I’ll just leave you here with a couple of examples of other media coverage from some of our Lerner Center briefs, and I’ll go ahead and turn this over to Beth. Thank you.

Beth Jarosz: Thank you. Take me a minute to switch sharing screen. And we did this into our run. So, if you can’t see my slides, please let me know. I’ll assume silence means it’s okay. Um, and Shannon described there being a barrier between research and sort of the wider public, whether it’s policymakers or the public or journalists, and I’m going to describe it as a gap. But, essentially, we’re talking about the same problem. And I think I wanted to start with, um, you know, a focus on public policy specifically because most of my career has been in informing elected officials and policymakers about data so that they can make good decisions.

So I’m going to focus a little bit on that policy piece. And when I say public policy, I mean a set of actions, plans, laws, behaviors that are adopted by a government and that can be enacted through things like agency guidance or court decisions, executive orders, funding priorities, policy documents, laws, legislation, rules, regulations and so on. So that’s the angle I’m going to take. In talking about that, the really good news is that evidence can matter. Um, and as Sutcliffe said in 2005, the bad news is that often it does not. Um, and so let’s talk about some of the reasons why that gap exists.

Um, there is a deep communication gap. And I think a piece of it is different languages and different skill sets. And I’ll talk about that. But part is also that stereotypes are part of the problem. Um, so before I go on to the next slide, I want to ask each of you to take a moment and picture a policymaker. Think about the words or the phrases or the sort of emotions that come to mind when you think of someone who’s in elected office. And, and when we have asked this in the past, um, we get things like that they have very limited perspective, that they distrust research. Or if people are feeling less generous, that policymakers don’t understand research and that they are the ones who are responsible for digging up evidence and data to inform their policymaking, that their actions aren’t evidence based, and all of these have the sort of undercurrent of that policymakers are partisan. Um, which may be true in some cases, but in my career, I’ve worked with a lot of elected officials. And even when we don’t necessarily agree on policy or policy ways of achieving things, um, I think that there is a lot more, uh, appetite for having evidence informed public policy than I think sometimes they get credit for. And of course, policymakers may have stereotypes about researchers. Things like excessive use of technical jargon, um, researchers and journal articles, in particular, being very general and theoretical rather than the sort of real world or real problems that policymakers are dealing with day to day. I use if you can’t see, I use real problems, in sort of air quotes, but that that is seen as a gap between the two worlds and that researchers tend to avoid policy. I know those of us who are in the research world, um, we don’t want to assume causality when we’re when we’re looking at data where there’s a correlation. Um, and so therefore there can be an interest in shying away from policy implications when what reason, what policymakers need are those policy implications or implementations. And sort of the summary in one word of that, of that series of stereotypes is sort of the tower piece.

And all of that said, it is possible to bridge the gap between researchers and policymakers. And I’ve got a couple of practical examples of how to do that. Um, longer term and sort of fodder, perhaps, for a different workshop is thinking about that research uptake and engaging policymakers up front. Um, but what we’re going to do today, just in the interest of time, is focus on that third piece about communicating strategically. And if you take nothing else away from what I say today, I would say: assume competence, but not expertise. So assume that the person who’s going to be reading it is smart, but that they’re not using the same terminology. They don’t have the same depth of knowledge about the theory. And what their goal is, is to be educated in order to make good policy decisions.

So how do we do that? A couple of a couple of tips are to use clear and concise language and avoid jargon. Um, and what I’m going to, uh, offer to all of you is an activity. I know we’re going to take Q&A at the end, but if in the chat you could type some jargony terms that you use. Maybe there’s a term that’s very specific to your research. And those of us who are here can start to give you alternatives, but we can be your sort of live thesaurus. So if you have a term like etiology, um, maybe we would respond with the cause of disease and use that phrase instead. Um, if you regularly use a phrase like externalizing behavior, um, it could be aggressive, impulsive, or antisocial behavior. Replace it with, um, so thinking sort of about the jargon that we use can be challenging, um, but one of the tips here is write what you would write academically and then go back and, try and go back and use a thesaurus and sort of work those words back out again so that your work is more accessible to a policy audience, like, so, um, Go ahead and type those. If there’s a key, a term, a jargony term that you use that’s really important to your work, type that into the chat. And Mark, Paula, Diana, and maybe Shannon can live give you examples of what you could replace that with. A couple of, a couple of suggestions coming into the chat. So, I will let people keep working on that and move on to the next sort of two, uh, tips for work for bridging that research to policy gap. And it speaks directly to issues that policymakers care about and provide information that allows them to feel confident taking action. I’ve grouped these two together, um, because, you know, we, we as researchers might think there’s a really compelling arc about sort of the, the life-saving implications of an investment or the, the sort of social, emotional well-being of a particular marginalized group is the most important thing. But you need to know your audience. And so if, if you’re talking to a set of policymakers who, what they’re going to care about most is the budget implications of something or the fiscal impact or whether or not it brings jobs to their community, it is okay to make that the primary selling point when you’re making your policy case. It’s not pandering. It’s not disingenuous. It’s meeting a person where they are with the issue they care about.

You can and think, think about one of the more polarized issues, you know, uh, diversity, equity and inclusion. I think most of the people on this call probably care very deeply about that. But if you start out with that in a talk with someone who has been sort of socialized to resist, that they might not hear anything else that you’re going to say. So maybe start talking about, more generally, human interest, maybe talk about fiscal impact, and then you can sort of lead into those other issues, um, that might have been more sensitive before you built on that report. Just, and in terms of providing information that helps them feel confident taking action, give them data that they know the sample size is big enough. You know you’re not going to put a whole literature review in there, but you can signal things like a wide body of research also finds that this policy matters, um, you know, or study after study shows that if you do X, Y will happen. Um, you don’t have to do a full lit review to signal that they can feel confident that if they take this policy action, there’s going to be an outcome at the end that they expect.

And then, last but not least, um, propose with that solution is, and Shannon alluded to this when she did her overview. What is that concrete action step that they can take? Is it expanding a program? Is it making a budgetary change? Is it funding, um, additional health care services? Make it clear what the ask is in your writing and what the outcome is going. And so with that, I am going to turn it over to Paola to give you some specifics about how to write a brief working in those cases that I’ve talked about in terms of adding some more.

Paola Scommegna: Thanks, Beth. What I’m going to do is share some very specific techniques, um, that we use at PRB so you can recognize them and really understand the reading, the reasons behind them. And the first thing I want to share is it’s crucial to understand the, the differences between academic and journalistic writing. Academic writing, um, builds to a conclusion, starts with background, findings, and the conclusion is at the end. Next slide. But journalistic writing turns that format on its head. It’s called the inverted pyramid, and the most important information is shared first. Generally, that’s the conclusion. And then additional evidence and background comes later. And this format is used in newspapers, but also in writing for the web and policy memos. And this is what people are very used to reading. So as you begin writing for non-scientists and are aiming to communicate in a non-technical way, I would almost I would encourage you to go sit in a different desk or have a picture of your audience there so that you can think of this totally different way of communicating. And next slide. Oops.

Beth Jarosz: But I apologize. I have no idea what just happened to my computer.

Paola Scommegna: All right, well, the next one is, is on, um, writing headlines, and, um, let’s see if we can get to it. There. There we go. Okay, so these are some tips on writing headlines. It’s the first thing that you’ll do, and what we suggest is you state the main finding clearly like a newspaper headline. You may describe the action needed. You may aim for about 20 words, and it must have a verb. So, next slide, will give you some examples. And, and these examples are from recent population research. And what I’ve done is I’ve highlighted some of the verbs in red.

So you can see that these have verbs, and there’s action here. The first one: U.S. Teenage Births Hit Record Lows and Could Drop Further if Contraceptives Were More Accessible. It outlines the findings of the research, and it also implies the implications of the research. The next one was on, um, describes a natural experiment: When High Schools Moved Start Times to After 8:30 a.m., Attendance and Test Scores Rose. Um. I, very. The main message is right there. The third one is, um, looks at some pilot studies or small-scale research on, um, and the finding is: Taxes and Health Warning Labels on Sugary Beverages May Help Limit Consumption and Improve Health.

Um, next slide. And so the next thing we suggest is you begin writing with a summary of the main message. Now, Shannon shared how you can break that into three bullet points. Um, and, and, and that works quite well. And what we suggest is try to get it in the first paragraph. Um, clearly state the main problem or issue. Summarize your main research findings. Name the implications for policymakers and these three things together. Answer what we call with each other the “so what?” question. Why should people care about your research? Why should they be interested in what you found?

Um, next slide. So, this is some research out of Penn State that does that in the first two sentences. Um, the main finding of the research is the first section. The first sentence, Children in households that receive federal rental assistance are healthier and miss less school due to illness than those whose households are waiting for help. The research is summarized there. The second sentence, however: Up to 75% of renters who need federal housing assistance, including public housing or rental vouchers, don’t receive it. So the problem, the issue, the why people should care, is right there in the second sentence.

Next slide. So, here are some style tips to keep in mind. We talked about jargon with Beth, that, be conversational, and one way to do that is once you’ve written something, is to read it out loud and make sure it sounds like how you speak. The second thing is to define acronyms and technical terms. For example, if you write on the EitC, you need to say “earned income tax credit,” and then in, include a few words to explain what that is: lower, middle and lower income workers tax bills. Um, and that’s certainly how you would talk with someone who isn’t familiar with the acronyms that you use often.

Third, um, write in first person. I. I did this. We investigated this. And that will help you use active voice rather than passive voice. So, you would say, “we surveyed a representative sample,” rather than “a representative sample was surveyed.” And the reason we’re so fussy about passive voice is that it’s not conversational. It takes all the action out and the actor is unclear. And so it’s something we strive to avoid in the, the things we publish.

Finally, insert citations as numbered end notes. You saw that in the pieces Shannon shared with you, and you’ll see it in the pieces on the PRB website as well.

Next slide. Um, subheads. What are they, and why use them? Um, they’re descriptive phrases with a verb, and they’re really important. They break up the text. Highlight the main points for a reader who’s skimming, and research shows that many of us are skimming, particularly when we’re reading online. It. They reinforce the main message and they provide signposting. They signal to the reader what to expect in the text in the following section.

So, next slide. So what I did here was I pulled some subheads out of a brief so you could see them separate from the text that follows them, and can see how they summarize the main messages. Um, and this piece was on parental incarceration and its impacts. Parental Incarceration Is Widespread and Taking a Severe Toll on Children’s Lives. When a Parent Is Incarcerated, Children Are More Likely to Develop Behavior Problems, Face Homelessness, and Experience Harsh Parenting. Those are the research findings, in brief. The third subhead, um, points toward the action. The policy implications: Screen Students for Parental Incarceration, Rethink Sentencing Policies. So, it’s a succinct way to communicate your, your findings and, and the main message of a piece and keep the reader going through your piece, even if they have a tendency to skim. Um.

Next slide. And now, um, finally, I have some advice on data and graphics from PB. We find that bar charts and maps are much better than tables. We aim for no more than 8 to 10 data points. The title should be non-technical and have a verb like a headline. Xs and Y axes is clearly labeled. Use whole numbers if possible. And next is a sample of a PRB figure in PRB style. And the first thing I want you to see is that the, the main title is in more conversational, less technical style. Female, White, and Highly Educated Older Adults Were Most Likely to Feel Lonelier During the Pandemic. But below it, we include a much more technically accurate description for people who might want to know more specific things. So that is there, too. Um, the, um, numbers are whole numbers. The axes are labeled. And look what we’ve done here with the colors. They are designed to help you, uh, help a reader look at what we want them to focus on. So the first two bars are age, the second two in another color or gender. The third are, um, race/ethnicity, and the fourth are related to education. So, the colors work to focus the communication as well. So, I’ll stop here and pass it over to Mark.

Mark Mather: Right. Thank you, Paola. I wanted to end just by talking a little bit about how PRB can help, what we’re, what we’re trying to do to, um, help you write your own research briefs. And so the last thing I wanted to mention in this, uh, in today’s presentation is that we have a, a new research brief series with the Association of Population Centers where we’re helping researchers. Uh, well, there’s two different options. Uh, one is that you draft a research brief, and we can assist at PRB with editing and production of that brief. Or if you prefer, we can draft a brief, a research brief on your behalf. The, um, we’re aiming for, for about a thousand words for these briefs, which is pretty typical. Uh, we try to include some simple interactive charts, and we’ll publish these, uh, materials on previous websites and share them through social media. And Lillian, you can see, just put in a link in the chat here. So this is where you can find a sample template that’s available. It shows you, uh, the basic structure for one of these briefs and as well as provide an example. And then there’s also a short online form that you can fill out if you would like to have assistance. Lillian, just put that in the chat as well. If you don’t want to fill out the form, you don’t have to. You can just send us an email and we’ll be sure to respond to you. Um, there’s no cost to you for this work. The only requirement is that the topic really needs to be related to demography and/or reproductive health and population health topics.

So, in the next slide, I just wanted to provide a list of some of the new and forthcoming research briefs that we have at PRB. The first three are currently available on our website, whereas the other, I guess five of them, are currently in production. So those have been drafted and they’re in the process of being copyedited. And just so you know, it does take a little bit of time to produce these. There’s a, you know, we want to make sure we get the data right. So there’s a fair amount of back and forth with the researcher. And then it goes to our communications team for copyediting. So, the whole process can take, um, sometimes 5 or 6 weeks, sometimes a little bit longer than that depending on people’s schedules. And you can see that these briefs are on a wide range of topics. Um, we’ve got briefs on, recent briefs on marriage, child care, coastal hazards, and gender norms.

And then I thought I’d end the next slide. Just, um. I think there’s one slide before this one. Beth. There is not. So yeah, you can just go to the next slide. But I don’t know what happened to this, the intervening slide. But, um, I thought I’d end with this because, um, this is an example where PRB wrote a research brief and, um, it ended up being picked up for a maternal mortality awareness campaign last year. And it’s, it’s, so it started with a research brief that Paola had written, and we’re really proud of this one, because it took a lot of work to, um, to work with the advocates who were organizing this campaign. There was a lot of back and forth to make sure that they were representing the NICHD-funded research. So we wanted to make sure that everything was, was accurate. Um, and, you know, not everything that we publish gets a lot of attention. But if you keep working at this, you’ll find that, um, you can have an impact. And again, um, Lillian has just shared the link to this, uh, this brief and the related materials on our website, and I think I will stop there, and we can open it up for questions.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Right. Um, so. Just to remember, as part of the Q&A, um, we’re going to ask people to use the raise hand feature and then to jump in and ask their questions when they have them. Um, raise hand feature is at the bottom as part of the reactions, um, tab at the bottom of Zoom. Um, but we have a couple of, of questions that have come in. Oh, great. Alex, Kaylee, I see your questions. I’m going to ask the ones in the chat, and then we’ll turn to Alex and then Kaylee for their questions. So, we had one question come in through the chat, which is, what is the optimal timing for composing and publishing a research brief to mitigate potential copyright issues with journal article publication. Anyone want to jump in and, and speak to that one?

Shannon Monnat: I can, um. I suppose because we publish these briefs all the time, we don’t have any problems with, with copyright, um, concerns. And this is because you’re not actually reproducing the journal article. You’re summarizing the findings from that paper, if you have one. Um, and you are not copying and pasting the figures, for example, from the article, you know, we’re reproducing the figures to be more inclined for a public audience anyway, it’s your work. So there’s no, there are no copyright infringement concerns in terms of the best timing. If these are briefs that you want to pair up with an academic journal article, and for example, you want to link the journal article into the brief which, which I would recommend, um, I would suggest drafting the brief after you’ve gotten a revise and resubmit on your paper, or it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be accepted. Maybe you’ve gotten a conditional acceptance to have it ready to go so that once the, you know, you’re sending the proofs back to the journal, um, you have this brief done, and all you’re really waiting for at that point is the link from the journal article that you can embed into the brief. But if for some reason you don’t do that, that’s not to say that you can’t publish a brief after the article is already out. Um, this happens a lot with our authors, where they have an article that’s come out, they decide they want to write a brief. It’s targeted to a different audience. So it’s not like you’re missing out on anything if you don’t have the brief done right away. That’s, that’s my $0.02 on that.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Thanks, Shannon. Um, I’ll jump to the next question, um, which is, what platforms have you been most successful with reaching different audiences?

Beth Jarosz: I can, I can probably take a first crack at that. And I think we all probably have different perspectives. Um. I have found two things to be particularly helpful. One is social media, I’m assuming this is social media platforms, um, X before it became a terrible place to be. It was very effective for communicating with journalists and sharing information out. Um, I also am in the, the sort of unique position of I regularly present work to elected officials because of some work I do here in California. So I’ve got, like, a very direct line here that I don’t think counts. Um, but LinkedIn, weirdly, can be a good place because you’ve got an audience that is, uh, sort of issue focused, can be a really good platform to share. Um, and outside of that, one-on-one communications, you know that nothing—I know we’re talking about writing for these audiences, but, but nothing really beats building a relationship with whether it’s a policymaker. And again, I kind of mentioned this in the beginning to think about how to engage policymakers early on. If what you really want to do is policy change, start building those relationships, personal relationships, early on. Same thing goes with journalists that nothing beats knowing the person on the other end of the email.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Anyone else want to chime in on that one?

Shannon Monnat: Our briefs are indexed in Google, and I presume yours are as well. And actually, most of our hits come from that, from people doing Google searches. So we, we, we post the briefs and all the outlets that Beth mentioned. And, you know, we’ll get hits on those once in a while. Um, but when you look at the, the download statistics, most of it is from people doing Google searches because those terms kind of pop up at the top. Um, so, you know, just making sure you’re publishing with a brief series that does index on Google is a good strategy.

Mark Mather: I’ll just add, it’s, it’s good to have some, it’s okay to publish these in PDF format. But um, if you do that, it’s also good to have the short blurb so that people can find it easily, so they don’t have to take that extra step of opening up a PDF. I mean, that’s what social media is all about to you want to get people to see it first, and then if they if you get their interest, then they might click to see the whole thing in a PDF format. But as a general rule, we do now publish all of our briefs in HTML format so that they’re easier to search and easier to find.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Right. I think I’ll switch to, uh, folks with their raised hands. Alex, do you want to chime in and ask your question?

Alex: Sure. Hi everyone, thanks for holding this webinar. It’s been great so far. My question is related to, I think the question was just answered, but I wanted to know basically like, you write a brief, how does it get into the hands of a journalist or, or one of these people? And I understand there’s these research series, but do you contact journalists as well? Obviously, like you use your social media presence, but are there any other tricks to kind of get it in front of people? Um, and, and yeah.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Paola, I wonder if you have some thoughts on this.

Paola Scommegna: Um, it really helps that they’re, um, indexed in Google so that when a journalist is writing on your topic and they do a search, they find you. But I also follow who’s writing about the things I’m writing about in, um, in the national media. And I will send them something, um, through the, the addresses they provide, say, the aging reporter at the New York Times. I, I do send them things. Yeah. Usually, I’ll compliment them on something they’ve written and then saying, you might be interested in this.

Beth Jarosz: So excellent strategy. The only thing I would add to that is that if there’s a particular writer who you really hope will take up the article, if you can send them an early draft before it’s live and they feel like they have an exclusive, they’re more likely to respond favorably.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Not always a guarantee that they will write, though, and sometimes that’s very disappointing. Um, but they’re also, they’ve got other competing demands or editors who have opinions as well. So, um. Anyone else want to chime in to that or should I switch to Kaylee? All right. Let me switch to Kaylee’s question. Kaylee, do you want to chime in? And I’m sorry if I’m not pronouncing your name correctly.

Kaylee: Nope. That was spot on. Um, thank you all for your presentations today. It’s been incredibly helpful. I’ve just been taking notes frantically. So, my question is, um, pretty demography specific, but one of the things that I would love to hear about your experiences with or best practices is in terms of, um, when you’re trying to express uncertainty with your results. So, I’m thinking about, in the case of, for example, like demographic forecasting, um, or modeling in that way where, you know, you might have a point estimate, but what you really want to convey is like, here’s the possible range of outcomes. Um, how do you ,how do you manage the, the balance between like being honest to what your results are actually telling you versus wanting to tell this compelling story?

Beth Jarosz: This is, I, this is what I do all the time. So a, a big piece of my work is, is doing forecasting work for regional governments in California and um. I would say, where I started my career, point estimates were the only thing that people wanted to talk about. And now, particularly in the post-COVID context, there’s an appetite and an interest for having uncertainty ranges. Um, and I have had no problem just being really clear about that. Like, here’s the point estimate we’re going to use. And then here’s how widely it might diverge at the end. And um, really appreciated and no challenges with, um, sort of understanding among that policy audience.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Shannon, do you have anything to add based on your experience?

Shannon Monnat: Um, there, there’s a sociologist who wrote a journal article a few years ago with the title that said “eff nuance.” And the point was like, you’re going to get your point across much more clearly if you provide, you know, like not all kinds of little ifs, ands, or buts about what you’re trying to present, but you just say it straight. Um, having said that, I agree with Beth that it’s perfectly reasonable to just provide a range to say, you know, like our estimates suggest this is going to be the number. But because this type of projection can be uncertain, the range might be between x and x. And just say it like that. But what I would avoid is, um, all kinds of details that are things like, well, under this conditions, this thing happens, but only for this group and only on like Mondays. Right. So, um, then you have way too much detail and nobody really knows what to do about it.

Beth Jarosz: Yes to all of that.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Do we have any other questions from the audience? I don’t see any other raised hands. Um, and there was another question that was asked, but I believe it was already answered through the course. Yeah. Winnie, would you like to go ahead and ask your question?

Winnie: Yes. Thank you. So I wanted to know, can I, can a policy brief be publicly based on someone else’s research and not necessarily my own?

Mark Mather: Wait, you’re talking about, um, summarizing someone else’s research in a brief.

Winnie: That’s right. So, uh, without necessarily being the first author or whatever, like, you just find an interesting research and then you want to turn it into a book.

Mark Mather: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s, it’s good to, um, you know, the first thing you would do is probably just reach out to that person to let them know that you’re starting this process and because they will be important, uh, an important reviewer, we always send out our we we’re always writing briefs based on other people’s research. And, um, we send it out to them to make sure that we’re getting it right. And they like they also like to have, uh, they like to know when it, when it’s being published to so that, uh, in case somebody does come across that they’re not kind of taken by surprise when they get a call, um, that they, you know, a journalist just found this, this brief, and they want to talk to somebody about it.

Winnie: Great. Thank you.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Jan [German pronunciation]. It’s good to see you.

Jan: Good to see you, too. Thanks for the great presentations. Um, I was wondering if any of you had any, any experience with using a, AI to get a policy brief started, and if that is helpful.

Shannon Monnat: No, but that’s a great idea. I think I am. Part of me wonders. You know what I would spit back if you put in, you know, the abstract of a journal article and said, please simplify this using non-technical language. It might spit back something that could get you started. Um, and then once you’re started, it’s easier to, to proceed because it would probably identify what the most important parts of that abstract were for you. It’s worth giving it a shot.

Mark Mather: I agree. And there is one of our colleagues at PRB is using, I think it’s called a PDF or something, where you can upload a paper and ask it to pull out the key points. You can query AI for whatever you want to know about that paper. And I do think in some years’ time, you know, this business of writing my technical research briefs, we might be out of business when AI becomes much better at this. For the time being, I don’t think there, the, you know, I think that people can still tell the difference between one of Paola’s briefs and something that ChatGPT created, but who knows in ten years.

Diana Elliott, moderator: I still think there’s going to be a place for people, technical people, to review things. Well, I hold on to that, that hope for the future. Um, so, uh, I wonder if we have any other questions. Um. If not, I’d like to just sort of turn it back to the panel, and we’ve heard a few, I’d like to leave this on an uplifting note, right. We’ve heard a few, sort of tales, of success stories. I’m wondering if, if people want to chime in with some other success stories, to kind of inspire folks to write their first policy brief.

Beth Jarosz: You want that from the panelists? Or do you want anyone who’s participating to also share if they’re interested? Right, I think.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Yeah, I was thinking of the panelists, but yeah, we can absolutely open it up if if other people have success stories.

Beth Jarosz: Um, I would say in this sort of relates to the forecast question that was asked earlier. Uh, there, I wrote a brief about population decline, um, in the United States, that population growth has slowed dramatically in the wake of the pandemic, um, had been slowing leading up to that. And, you know, new Census Bureau projections show that we’re going to reach an inflection point at some point, certainly in the next several decades, if not in the next couple. So, I wrote a blog summarizing that, and a, a journalist from The Economist reached out and said, hey, I saw this blog you wrote. Would you be willing to talk about population change? So, it’s that, um, not every article you write, not every blog, not every policy brief, not every research brief is going to get picked up, but it’s having that sort of base of articles that are out there that gets you into the universe of the journalists that might be interested or the policymakers going to be interested. And then that builds. Now that journalist knows that, you know, I’m a resource for issues about population change and, and may come back to that again, you know, a year from.

Diana Elliott, moderator: And you developed a budding relationship with that journalist too, which is also really helpful. So, when Beth has something new out, she’ll send it to that journalist. And, and it helps. Um, Shannon, you had some great success stories. Not many people get to travel to such fabulous places because of their research. Um, I’m wondering if you have anything else to share on that front.

Shannon Monnat: This is the reason I keep writing briefs. I’m like, who’s going to send me on a trip next? Oh, it’s, uh, it’s so random, you know, like, I, I, um, I probably shouldn’t say it’s the reason I keep writing briefs. Because you shouldn’t write the briefs to get this kind of attention, because most often it doesn’t happen that way. So this idea that you’re building up this portfolio, that you become the go to person on this topic, that’s more likely to happen if your research is out there in the public, easily findable, not behind a paywall. When a reporter is looking for someone who’s an expert on X, you know, population projections for Beth or, you know, rural mortality. And in my case, they’re going to be more likely to find me through a brief than through a, through a journal article. And then these kinds of things happen, which can be exciting. And then you have to start saying no to things.

Mark Mather: I was just going to quickly use Paola again as an example because she, she drafted an article, I think it was 2019, Paola, the one on measuring longevity. So it’s pre-COVID, and it’s just an example of uh, if you, if you just keep producing these things, some of them will become very, uh, widely used. So when COVID, uh, happened the following year, that article started to get a ton of attention and ended up with several hundred thousand views in the first six months of 2020. So, um, so sometimes you might not get attention when you write the brief, but when certain current event, uh, policy, you know, issue comes around, it will start to get attention.

Paola Scommegna: And Mark, I was thinking of something you worked on a related to the burden renters feel or experience, and you gave data for every state, I think. And the governor of New York kept mentioning it, it just keeps turning up. Um, so there’s something you did a while back that’s driving policy.

Diana Elliott, moderator: Right. Um, hopefully that gives a little bit of inspiration for everyone on the call to ,to write, um, a policy brief, whether using AI or not. We support this completely. Um, and we can’t wait to read your briefs or to help you out with that, as Mark referenced before. So, just a reminder that this webinar has been recorded and there are slides and that link for the recording will be sent out afterwards. And I want to just thank everyone who participated who chimed in. Special thanks to Mark, Shannon, Beth, and Paola, um, for their terrific presentations and we look forward to being in touch.