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How to Tailor Your Research for a General Audience

In this blog post, we cover two of the key secrets to successfully connect with the public: choosing your audience and tailoring your message to reach them.

Many researchers view their work as important only to the scholarly community. There’s no need to worry about sharing research outside of your immediate peer group of other interested colleagues.

However, no matter how many citations - or how much interest and notoriety - you achieve among your colleagues, this impact pales in comparison to the impact you can generate if the wider community takes interest in your work. Impact is more than just academic citations: It also refers to the ‘difference your work makes to ordinary people’. Arguably much more important than citations!

The chances are excellent that your research affects and interests audiences outside the scholarly world. It could have an effect on government policy, industry practices, and even captivate and interest the media and public at large.

If you can identify and connect with these audiences, you can amplify the impact of your work multiple times over.

In this blog post, we cover two of the key secrets to successfully connect with the public: choosing your audience and tailoring your message to reach them.

Identify the target audiences for your research

Anyone who might be interested in your work is a member of your potential target audience. You, probably more than anyone, know how your research applies to the world around it. Now think about who it applies to. What different audiences would be interested in the applications of your research, aside from the colleagues in and around your field?

There are likely a great many touch points between your research and your broader audience. You just need to think about, and uncover, connections with them. Here are some general groups to consider.

Industry experts

Industry experts typically have an interest in applied research. This is research that can be used, or ‘applied’ in the field. Examples include:

  • Research comparisons between the strength of steel rivets to traditional welding in building construction. This may help guide builders and architects on what method to use in future construction projects.
  • Research uncovering the optimal width of seed spacing in corn rows. Corn farmers and crop consultants who seek out this research can help make their farming operations more profitable.

Policy makers

Policy makers can include leaders at literally any governmental level: National, state, local, or provincial. It can also include leaders, advisors, and other key staff within governmental agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Connecting with these policy makers can be a very effective way to build impact for your research, as they can use it to alter current public policies or even develop new ones.

Examples of research of interest to policy makers can include:

  • Research uncovering best sanitation practices for meat packaging could be of interest to regulatory agencies involved with combating food-borne illness.
  • City and town leaders might take interest in research on the environmental effects of salt application on roads for ice removal. These leaders may decide to change or continue their policies based on the research results.

The media

The science, trade, or traditional media might also take interest in your work. Just about any profession has an online trade magazine. Similar to the way you would find and choose target journals to publish your research, look for trade journals that might be interested in your work.

If your research can affect the health of the public at large or has some truly novel or interesting findings, you could find your research in traditional media outlets.

And some of the most prolific news stories in the science media cover research about awe-inspiring research topics, like planets, asteroids, and other massive objects sometimes billions of miles away.

Enthusiasts

Right back here on earth, there are many segments of the general public interested in specific plants, animals, and other things connected to your research.

And if there are interest groups, chances are good that there are media outlets and social media channels that you can reach these enthusiasts through.

The public at large

Maybe your research covers an issue that can affect literally anyone in a geographic area, like a highly transmissible virus. People are generally very interested in these topics. And if your research can inform or affect public health, positively or negatively, many will want to know your findings.

Prioritize your audience

So at this point, you have ideas about who your research could apply to. If you did your job correctly, your list of possible audiences is likely somewhere in the dozens. Now which of these groups would find your work the most interesting?

To help focus your research dissemination efforts and save time, you should pick your most important target audiences

How do you prioritize your key target audiences? There is no set formula. This mainly requires judgment. That said, there are really two key things to consider.

Consider the size of your target audience

The size of the audience can be critical if you want your research to make an impact. The larger the audience size, the greater its potential impact. If you had to choose between a national association event attended by 10,000 social scientists or a smaller gathering of 500 public health policy makers for your next conference presentation, the logical choice for impact might be the social sciences conference.

Consider your target audience’s level of interest

Steve Jobs, the famous co-founder and CEO of Apple, once said, “One home run is much better than two doubles.” Likewise, the quality of your audience is more important to you than the number of people you reach.

Prioritize audiences that will find your research most interesting. Why? These are individuals who are more likely to click through to your journal article or preprint, view it more closely, or share it with friends or colleagues on social media.

Judging the interest and relevance of your research to other groups is not always easy, but this task can be made easier by considering which groups have the strongest connections to your work. In other words, ask yourself, “Which audiences will be most affected or impacted by my work?”

For an example, let’s take this preprint on clinical research titled, “One-year Risks and Burdens of Incident Cardiovascular Disease in COVID-19: Cardiovascular Manifestations of Long COVID”.

All clinical researchers would find this preprint interesting to some degree, but among this large pool of readers, who would find it most interesting?

Clinical researchers focused on cardiovascular diseases and virology could be among the best to target. Perhaps the pool of virologists is too large? Instead focus on those studying COVID-19 or coronaviruses in general.

Consider the geography of your audience

To reach a geographically broad audience, your research must also have a geographically broad appeal. For example, a study on the Internet usage habits of Estonians will be of interest to maybe a few individuals outside of Estonia. But a study on climate change affects literally anyone in the world.

Which research would you be more interested in reading? Something that affects you or something that affects a specific population hundreds of miles away? In most cases, audiences outside the research community will want to learn about research that affects them or their community.

Tailoring your messages

How do you capture the interest of your target audience? With the right messaging. Unfortunately, there is not likely one single thing you can say to all of these groups that will attract their attention.

You’ll need to tailor your message to each distinct group. It may seem daunting, but it’s important if you want these segments to pay attention. You may also want to pick no more than a few of the larger groups.

Ask questions to identify connections

In order to tailor your message, you must recognize the connections between your research and each of your target audiences. One of the best ways to tailor your message is to ask - and answer - the following questions for each group you target:

  • “Why should Audience A care about my research?”
  • “How does my research affect Audience A?”
  • “What aspects of my research can be interesting to Audience A?”

The answers could potentially be different for each target audience.

Now tailor and hone your message

Once you identify the connections between your research and target audiences, it’s time to present tailored messaging to each of them.

Start with the most important message to your audience

People have very short attention spans, and they’re getting shorter. Humans literally have shorter attention spans than goldfish, according to one study featured in Time magazine. This is why you must lead with the most important or interesting fact, figure, or piece of information to your target audience at hand.

In one example, a common target audience for applied agricultural scientists is farmers. Let’s say you’re promoting your research on a new conservation practice. Farmers will want to know the key take-home messages of your research, not the nitty gritty details, methods and analytical approaches. Promote your research directly to your target audience: Where do they get their information from? Take a look at the kinds of popular articles recently highly read within this particular group to aid direct promotion.

In contrast, when writing research papers or giving conference presentations to your colleagues in science, they will want the methodologies, limitations, and other information related to your research before you reveal your key findings and conclusion. This is fine if your target audience at hand is researchers.

However, when disseminating research to professional and lay target audiences, do the opposite. Focus your messaging by leading with your key research findings and your key conclusions. These audiences often don’t have the time - or interest - in all the scientific details.

Focus on the big picture

Don’t get bogged down in the research data, the technical jargon, or the details of your research methodology.

One way to ensure your messages are understandable: Test them on a teenager. If the messages are easy enough for a teen to understand, you’re ready to communicate them more broadly.

It’s also key to think about how you will explain:

  • The relevance, not the nuances of your research question and methodology.
  • The goals of your research, using analogies wherever possible in order to avoid the use of jargon.
  • Why is your research exciting? Highlight the problem you are trying to solve and tie it back to why your work is relevant.

You can associate this kind of “elevator pitch” with startups looking for their next investor. However, the American Society for Cell Biology notes that a focused statement short enough to “pitch” while you ride an elevator with someone can help you quickly and effectively communicate the value of your scientific work.

Your “elevator pitch” also offers an opportunity to practice many of the tips highlighted above.

Keep in mind that there’s a very high chance that your research affects and interests audiences outside the scholarly world. You can successfully connect with the public by choosing your audience and tailoring your message to reach them.

References:

10 Tips for Effective Science Communication, Brian Eastwood, Northeastern University Graduate Programs Blog. https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/tips-for-effective-science-communication/

Planning Outreach Communications for Your Grant-funded Research. Phil Bogdan. AJE Scholar. https://www.aje.com/arc/Planning-Outreach-Communications-for-Your-Grant-funded-Research/

AAAS Science Communications Toolkit https://www.aaas.org/resources/communication-toolkit

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