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BRECcIA Case Study: Tips for communicating research

Eunice Shame Kafwamba, offers a step-by-step guide on how to communicate your research findings to a non-academic audience. Read her thoughts.

In this BRECcIA case study, Eunice Shame Kafwamba, BRECcIA’s Stakeholder Engagement Programme Officer, offers a step-by-step guide on how to communicate your research findings to a non-academic audience.

Eunice was also the Lead Researcher on the BRECcIA project, “The Nexus Between Policies, Water and Food Security in the Drylands of Malawi,” and is the National Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator at Leadership for Environment and Development Southern and Eastern Africa (LEADSEA).

Research dissemination is frequently an afterthought, something usually considered only upon project completion. However, when conducting research on global challenges, it is important to keep dissemination at the forefront of your mind early in the research process, since the goal of a project is often to see research findings shared with audiences so that they can be translated into policy or community action.

In this section of the course, we provide tips to help you think through how to communicate your research, regardless of where you are in the research process.

Know your audience

Once you have identified your audience and their familiarity with your research topic, think about the audiences’ level of interest in your research topic and the amount of attention they are likely to give to research findings. This will help you to tailor your message’s content, language, and medium.

If your audience is a group of policymakers, they:

  • Will have busy schedules
  • May not have the time to read a full research article
  • May not be experts in your field

You might therefore choose to extract key points from your study to integrate into a one-page memo or a poster, focusing on aspects of your findings that would be especially important to addressing policy-related challenges.

Regardless of your audience and communication product, always identify a key “headline” message that will summarise the impact and importance of your work. Stick to one message per communication product and use simple, concise, non-technical language to ensure that your headline and its implications are clear.

Note that you might have to translate your research message into the language or dialect primarily spoken by your audience.

Know your medium

Knowing your audience will help you pinpoint the best ways to convey your research. Communicate your research via a product or platform that your audience is familiar with and uses frequently. Would it be best to disseminate research through any of the following:

  • A radio or television program
  • An interview
  • A news source
  • A poster
  • A written document
  • An online forum
  • A website
  • A social media image
  • A short video

Would it be best to communicate research through a highly interactive medium such as a conference, community meeting, town hall, or lesson, in which audience members can respond to findings and ask questions?

Consider the below images, both of which capture chat box discussions from a Zoom event that BRECcIA hosted during the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science, an annual celebration of the social sciences that takes place across the UK.

A chat window in Zoom is used as a central discussion forum where participants can share what they currently grow at home in their part of sub-saharan Africa

BRECcIA’s online session presented food and water security research from select BRECcIA projects to young learners ten to twelve years of age who were located throughout the UK, Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana. Youth listened to a series of presentations and engaged with presentation material in follow-up chat box discussions and polls as they thought about how the effects of climate change on food and water production related to their own lives.

An online poll asks participants what they currently grow at home, which can include maize, cassava, beans, potatoes, and onions

Notably, this was a medium of communication that school-aged children were familiar with due to COVID-19 online education practices. It was therefore an effective way to communicate research findings to this specific age group.

Make research relevant

Capture your audience’s attention by making the relevance of your research clear. Explain the implications of your research to your audience as well as the impact that your research may have in the future. Where possible, avoid diagrams, graphs, or tables since not all members of an audience group may have the scientific or mathematical literacy required to interpret them.

Instead, use metaphors and illustrations to explain a concept or help audiences imagine project processes or outcomes. If possible, organise for your audience to have a site visit to your research area so that audience members can experience aspects of your research for themselves.

In March 2022, the research team behind the BRECcIA project, “The Nexus between Policies, Water and Food Security in the Drylands of Malawi,” invited policy makers to the team’s research site so that they could see the extent of wetland degradation.

This particular project demonstrated that the loss of Malawi’s wetland ecologies poses a risk to food security, since healthy wetlands provide winter crops and a source of diverse livelihoods. However, a lack of wetland management policy has led to the misuse of these areas and their degradation.

Upon concluding their study, the research team recommended the development of a wetland management policy and targeted policymakers in Malawi’s agricultural and natural resource ministries as their primary audience. The team created a policy brief and organised a site visit. Policy makers described the experience as emotionally powerful and immediately called for the development of a wetland management policy.

A large community of local inhabitants of Malawi wetland visit a site with a research team to find out more about the area © University of Southampton

A large community of local inhabitants of Malawi wetland visit a site with a research team to find out more about the area © University of Southampton

Not all research teams and projects will be able to host audiences at a research site. Similarly, not all audiences will be able to physically travel to the research area. In these cases, identify whether it would be possible to arrange a virtual visit or, at the very least, assemble a presentation with pictures, videos, and anecdotes of where your research team was located and who you were interacting with. Be creative! Find ways to make audiences relate to, become emotionally invested in, and understand the real-world significance of your research and its findings.

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