Politicians, motivational speakers, YouTube and TikTok stars. What do they have in common with researchers, evaluators and scientists? Not very much, you might think. What they do share is an imperative need to connect and communicate with their audiences – and the fact that some do it better than others.
In a world where anyone with access to the internet can share their news, views and opinions, the need to better communicate data and information increases. When what you’re trying to communicate relates to a global challenge, such as climate change, the need is unequivocal. At the same time, cutting through the ‘noise’ and information overload that affect us daily becomes increasingly difficult
Politicians are known to rely on their ability to communicate to inspire action. The stars of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are similarly endowed with the capacity to communicate to the masses in short, simple, engaging ways. Whatever they choose to use these skills for, it’s undeniable that they are able to get their points and ideas across in a way that resonates with their audiences, and to do it in record time. Whatever the content, if you want your knowledge to lead to action, then communication can arguably be just as, if not more, important than the information you convey
This can be a hard pill for scientific minds to swallow. The idea of diluted data or reports missing dozens of pages of footnotes and citations to back up findings might seem at odds with the data-driven, logical and well-founded arguments we seek to make. But what does it mean for an audience?
Renowned physicist Richard Feynman is famed for his work on quantum electrodynamics – a subject equally famed for being highly complex. But he was also known as ‘the Great Explainer’, able to communicate complicated theories and concepts in a way that was easy to understand. His devised method of communication includes presenting the concept you intend to describe as if you were explaining it to a small child. If you can’t, you either don’t know it well enough, or you can’t explain it clearly enough.
What could we learn from great communicators, if we chose to ignore the obvious differences in what they are trying to communicate and focused solely on our need to connect with people to inspire action? How might we present our work? We might find ourselves challenging the methods and language we’ve been using to disseminate information for decades and exploring new ways to reach those we wish to inspire.
Taking an audience-focused approach to communicating information involves talking to them in a way that resonates with their tastes and time. Your audience may be more likely to listen to podcasts, use Instagram or watch videos than read a lengthy review when they have the time. When everyone is time-poor, creating content to suit your audience’ preferences can be a simple way to make sure they get the message. You might consider using cartoons, imagery, short films and social media presentations to bring findings to life.
Equally important is ensuring accessibility. If your audience is global, checking you have written your materials in multiple languages, or at a reading level that’s compatible with non-native or non-fluent speakers of that language, is essential. The power of communication cannot be underestimated, particularly when interventions can fail based on a lack of consideration of audience’s preferred methods. Written signage for healthcare in a refugee camp where the language used is mostly verbal, for example, will be useless to those it aims to assist.
In many cases, words might not be the best way to communicate at all. Communicating ideas in a way that is easy to understand is crucial, especially when people may lack time, awareness or foundational knowledge. This is particularly true when working in a field with many data sets, multiple variables and different contexts, not to mention the complexity of the challenges the world faces, and which researchers are hoping to investigate or explain.
One way of combating this complexity is the visualisation of data. Not only do visualisations evoke simplicity where complex data is concerned, but they can assist with a myriad of access issues when appropriately designed; from neurodiversity, to language, hearing, sight and educational barriers. It benefits us all to ensure visualisations are clear and accessible. If we are to tackle global issues, we must ensure that we enable everyone to hear, read or see the information they need and actions they might take.
Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals – or put simply, methods of persuasion – are still relevant and used by great communicators today. Ethos, or authority, is not often lacking in scientific research. Nor is logos; the logic and evidence to back up an idea. What may be overlooked is pathos; an emotional connection and appeal to our humanity. All three are considered necessary to persuade an audience to action.
While negative imagery and emotionally distressing stories are commonly used in the charitable and aid sector, such as to encourage donations, data increasingly shows that tapping into positive mentions like hope or pride, can be a key emotional driver of support[i]. If our work is to inspire action, a renewed focus on how we communicate with people must be considered, including appealing to positive emotions and our human inclination to hope in order to achieve better connections, in new, simple and engaging ways. Examples from youth climate movements are readily available, with young people connecting across borders via social media channels to organise activism, spread key messages, and inspire others to join their cause[ii].
Putting this into practice might be easier than it sounds; human connection does not have to be at the expense of scientific values or rigorous data. The use of citizen’s voices within evaluation and research can connect individuals with others around the world and give the science a ‘human face’ with which a reader can empathise. Just as important is to increase the diversity of voices in our work; it is natural to connect more easily with those we can relate to, those who look and sound like us, or those with similar life experiences. To reach the greatest audience, people must feel represented in our work.
A report is rarely published without the ambition to inspire change, and it is only people who can make those changes. If there’s no reason why a great scientist can’t be a great communicator, perhaps we can learn from unlikely teachers, and seek to make better connections in order to communicate the important work, and action, we seek to inspire.
Some tips for better communication:
- Keep it simple. Imagine how you would explain your work to someone with no background or context, to be sure it’s easy to understand your point.
- Do more with less. People are likely to remember no more than 3 main points from the information you present. Stay focused on what is most important.
- Check your language. Avoid jargon and consider the language your audience may be most familiar with. Write with them in mind.
- Visualise your data. Ensure colours are appropriate for those with different visual needs such as colour-blindness, and ensure labels are clear and explanatory.
- Consider your format. Think about how your audience is best going to engage with your content, and how you want them to respond.
- Ensure access. Consider how someone may experience barriers to understanding your content (visual, hearing, language, etc.), and mitigate for these as much as you can.
- Time yourself. Consider how much time your audience has to spend understanding your work, and make sure whatever you create can be understood in this time.
- Follow up. If you hope to inspire immediate action, make sure next steps are easy to find and action is easy to take.
- You can’t be all things to all people – connect with existing platforms and creators to share your content in places relevant to your audience.
[i] See for example; The price we pay for the money we raise, Development Compass; The interactive effect of emotional appeals and past performance of a charity on the effectiveness of charitable advertising, Charitable organizations’ storytelling influence on donors’ emotions and intentions and When sadness and hope work to motivate charitable giving