Pulling Back the Curtain – Tips for Communicating Study Findings

An drawing of lab equipment like a microscope and beaker

For the last decade, I’ve had a foot in two very different camps: scientific research and strategic communications. While my career got its start in the latter, the allure of health research and the potential to use evidence to improve systems pushed me to return to school for a Master of Public Health (MPH).

While in the program, I took classes covering topics from theory of human behavior to biostatistics to health intervention design, and I was introduced to a whole new language of research. But all throughout my grad school stint, the strategic communicator in me kept raising her hand to ask the question: Why don’t more people know about the important work being done in public health research?

Researchers have a unique opportunity to drive sustainable change with their work. Good research can be a powerful tool for uncovering answers to tough questions, designing effective programs, writing better policy, and holding organizations accountable.

However, I’ve come to learn that research organizations don’t always have the dedicated personnel or funding to disseminate their findings widely and strategically. Many are beholden to a grant cycle that doesn’t leave the time or budget for communications beyond a report or a journal article. And others may just not know where to start.

In this post, I outline a few simple tips to get started in creating bold, smart communications about your research that goes beyond the traditional client report or peer-reviewed study. Because if a scientist publishes a study and no one’s around to read it, does it make a sound?

Tip #1: Highlight noteworthy findings, and leave the rest in the report

Whether you’re evaluating the effectiveness of a program or collecting health data on entire populations, your final product is likely a report or journal article. And chances are it’s really long. That kind of content works for your grantor or peer-reviewer—they need to know every little detail about your work. But don’t let your dissemination stop there.

One pressure point I’ve encountered while working in research communications is overpacking content with too many findings or details on methods. Consider a press release. Its purpose is to catch the interest of a journalist, who is outside of your circle of information, and start a conversation about something new that their readers could learn from. Don’t let your press release become a re-write of the entire report. Pick a few noteworthy findings and see where it goes! You can always point them to your report or connect them to one of your experts for more information.

Media aside, think about the other groups who could benefit from this evidence and how they like to receive information. It’s probably not reading through 100-page reports. Pull out one or two noteworthy findings and put together a suite of straightforward materials (Tweets, executive summary, blogs, infographics) that appeal to specific audiences. Like Shrek, smart communication plans are like onions—they have layers.


Tip #2: Demystify the jargon

The key to translating research is finding the balance between maintaining the integrity of the work while also de-coding prohibitive language and concepts so that it can be used and shared more widely.

I’ve found that one of the biggest hurdles for researchers when communicating studies to non-scientific audiences is letting go of the jargon. They’ve spent years—sometimes decades—in academia learning the language of confidence intervals, p-values, and complex research methods. And with good reason! Without rigor in research, we’d be drawing loose connections between all sorts of disparate trends, and we wouldn’t be able to discern between good and shoddy studies. But when the language of research stays so complex that only those who conduct it can understand what it means, it becomes exclusive and inaccessible.

The next time you’re writing a press release or content for your organization’s website, try this: Imagine sharing the findings with a friend who works in another industry. What questions might they ask? What words would they pause on? Kylie Hutchinson with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation created a great “Evaluation Glossary” that offers simple definitions for some of research and evaluation’s most wonky jargon. Bring your audience along your research journey instead of leaving them in the dust.


Pulling back the curtain

As a communicator turned researcher who’s returned to communications, I’m here to posit this: You’re not giving up the rigor of your research by ensuring it’s understood by more than just other researchers. On the contrary, you’re giving your research the life it deserves. You’re giving your research the chance to catch the eye of a policy maker or a community organizer who can then use your findings to ignite evidence-inspired change.

I would like to see the research field as a whole—grant makers, academic institutions, and scientists alike—place more value on the strategic dissemination of scientific evidence, especially during a time where folks (and even some of our elected officials) are questioning the importance of science in decision-making.

We need to pull back the curtain on research and invite others into the scientific process. Because good science doesn’t have anything to hide, and it has everything to give.


About The Author

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla has a strong affection for storytelling and an aptitude for translating complex topics into sharp messaging. While her career began more than a decade ago in strategic communications, an insatiable interest in everything health inspired her to return to school to study disparities research and behavior theory. Learn more about Kayla.