Three ways to improve the communication of development research
Practical approaches can improve how we promote development research, and increase uptake by policymakers
My job as a communications officer involves organizing public seminars to share the outcomes of development research to policymakers and opinion leaders. A typical seminar starts with an overview of the topic, followed by a presentation of the key research findings, and then by a discussion. We also, of course, give out copies of the full report.
Interestingly, a number of participants always approach me after a seminar to request a copy of the presentation slides. I very nicely ask why, since they already have the full report, and usually get the same response: The slides are easier to read and understand.
The slides, they say, already contain the gist of the whole research, and list the most important points. The report, on the other hand, serves as a supplementary document they can refer to in case they need more details.
Instances like this have happened often enough to make me ponder the way we communicate development research.
The fact that policymakers continue to attend these seminars shows they are eager to learn and discuss the latest development issues, and development agencies are happy to oblige. For example, a quick search on the ADB website shows more than 200 new economics publications released in 2019 — more than four new publications every week — up from just 76 in 2016.
But are all these publications making an impact on policymaking? Communicating research outputs effectively is a critical yet often-overlooked part of the process.
Among researchers, the ability to share knowledge varies widely. Those with experience in the government typically have a good understanding of how to promote research work effectively. Others simply aim to publish their work online, launch it in a seminar, and conduct a few media interviews hoping these will show up in the news the next morning. While these are good communication practices, they are just bits of a larger opportunity to make a much greater impact on the decision-making process.
In the 1960s, philosophy professor Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message,” and that is so much truer today. With technological advances creating a constant flood of information, we have naturally become more selective in what we give our attention to. Newspapers are losing out to the convenience of online news aggregators, news digests and social media. In the same way, big hard-bound research publications are becoming shorter papers and briefs, which still need to be turned into easily digestible bits like infographics, charts and — yes — presentation slides.
As such, there is no single information format or channel that fits all purposes. McLuhan is right: The way we share information is as important as the information itself, as deciding the “how” will determine whether the "what" reaches the audience as intended.
So, how can researchers promote their work better? Through years of experience and experiments, I’ve learned there are three practical approaches:
1) Repackage for different audiences. Different policymakers require different kinds of information. Some may need the whole publication to understand the in-depth analysis that went into it, while others may only need to read the executive summary to get the bird’s eye view. There are also those who only need specific elements of a topic, which may be catered well through one page of bullet points, the way findings are usually written for presentations. At the same time, general pieces like news releases, blogs or op-eds can deliver key messages to a wider audience. All these underline the importance of having a variety of derivatives from the same knowledge product, presented in different formats with varying degrees of depth.
2) Create interaction. Interactivity is important, because it allows the exchange of ideas. It allows policymakers to appreciate the perspective of the researchers, and gives researchers the opportunity to be cognizant of policymakers' unique backgrounds, potentially enriching the topic being discussed. Lectures can be good venues for mass dissemination. Seminars are suitable for bringing together different groups of policymakers, while small group or even one-on-one briefing sessions tend to be appropriate for very high-level officials. Long-distance interaction can also be facilitated easily with videoconferencing and webinar sessions. Within each method, there are finer details involved that influence the level of dynamism in the conversation. For instance, a boardroom or hollow square seating arrangement often encourages more interaction than a classroom format.
3) Build momentum. The goal of communicating policy research is to get the buy-in of policymakers. Often, this requires researchers to sustain the conversation with the policymakers within a defined period. This means going beyond just launching a knowledge product at one event and sharing bits and pieces at different interactive occasions. This is where communications planning comes in: It helps researchers to identify the right activities and tools for their intended audience, ensure a logical flow from one activity to another, and keep track of the whole process.
In today's environment, development agencies and researchers should invest more time and resources into thinking upfront about how they can effectively disseminate their knowledge work. Ensuring that the knowledge is well-absorbed is the first step to making the right contribution to the policymaking process. If that means making presentation slides as important as the main publication, then so be it.