Research comms presents unique challenges in the charity sector, and it can be tempting to see it as something only specialists can do. But there’s lots of ways communicators from a wide range of backgrounds can get involved and apply everything they already know about great comms to communicating research- an area that is more important now than ever with the ongoing cost of living crisis and the complexities of the issues it is impacting.
So, what do we mean by research comms? Strictly speaking, for me research comms involves talking to an audience about scientific research. Don’t switch off if this isn’t something your charity or organisation is involved in though, because the principles can be applied more broadly. If you ever need to communicate stats or anything involving technical language, this could be around health, climate change or budgetary trends to name just a few, then a lot of the same ideas will apply.
At Prostate Cancer UK, we have a fairly small team with direct research comms expertise, but we’re keen to empower our colleagues to feel more confident when talking about research. Research isn’t our only output but it’s a big one. It often has tangible results or gets in the headlines, and we want our supporters to feel part of that work. After all, without them it wouldn’t be possible.
Here’s some hints to help you get started…
Stay audience focused
My first piece of advice about research comms is that it doesn’t have to be scary. If it feels overwhelming knowing that you have a difficult topic to communicate, start by taking it back to basics and ask yourself who are you writing for?
In my role, this could include talking about science to people who love research but know nothing about it. Or speaking to people who think they know a lot but don’t understand the details. Or there’s even times I’ll write for researchers who know a lot about science but not a lot about the specific subject area I am addressing.
Also ask, what are the needs of each of these audiences and how can I prioritise those needs? Get these steps sorted first and writing about the research will become much easier.
For example, when writing for a professional audience be aware they’re given a lot of written material to consume every day, so they might not have much time to read what you want to put across. This means the content must be easy to access whilst giving them the detail they need. To achieve this, I make an effort not to use patronisingly simple language, but I do explain terms which are unique to prostate cancer. Be careful not to drop in too much jargon, or you’ll lose your reader from the start.
Have confidence in your own basic comms skills and use the same techniques you’d always go to as your starting point.
Think about using visuals as well as words
If thinking about research comms instantly brings to mind pages upon pages of boring copy explaining the intricate details of tests and treatments, then the task will understandably feel daunting. But there’s no need for this to be the case.
Once you’ve understood your audience and the level of detail they need (and will enjoy!) take another look at your copy. Do you really need all those words? Could any of them work in a visual?
Prostate Cancer UK has an amazing creative team. By working together, our comms and creative teams can create effective visuals which tell a complicated message in a simple way.
This is an approach we often use when talking about the history of research. We could write it all down but who would that benefit? In this case, it’s about showing the audience what happened and how they helped. By limiting the copy to a sentence or two and including relevant graphics we keep the audience’s attention and can continue the story through to the next step of our journey and how they can help us get there.
Why not challenge yourself to see how few words you can use to communicate a piece of research?
Remember why you are doing what you are doing
Finally, remember research comms doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’ll be much better for your audience if they’re given the information they need in the simplest way possible. Another basic comms question that will come in handy to ask yourself here is why are you writing?
At first, you might think your purpose is to educate your audience but it’s likely you’re really hoping to inspire them to do something or to thank them for helping you. If this is the case you want to leave the audience feeling motivated, not confused. Spend the time getting the language right and you’ll deliver enjoyable research comms which achieve your objectives.
As someone who does this daily, I’m not saying I always get this right first time. I often find when a topic is quite complicated, I fall into the trap of making the language I use increasingly complicated too. This can be frustrating when I look back over a piece and realise I’ve slipped away from the tone I wanted to use for my audience. To fix this, I go back to the last word I was completely confident my audience would understand, and then try to rephrase the rest of the sentence to suit. If you can’t understand it, don’t write it!
Of course, there will be times when the content is completely new and then chatting a topic through with research comms colleagues or the researcher themselves is helpful if there is an opportunity to do so. You don’t have to work on your research comms alone, but if you can make a start, you’ll develop your own knowledge and be more confident next time.
Hopefully you find these hints useful when working on your next piece of research comms. If you work in research comms, or think you’d like to, and want to connect- get in touch! You’ll find me easily on LinkedIn.
Banner Image: Ann H on Pexels