At last month’s Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) annual meeting in Atlanta, GA, I teamed up with four others to offer a four-hour workshop on effective research communication skills. Our goal is to help those working and studying policy, public management, public affairs, economics, health policy, political science, and data science be better data communicators.

Researchers aim to communicate to wide audiences, but we don’t typically receive substantial communication training in graduate school. Workshops like these play an important role in building skills to communicate data and analysis, but there also exists many self-guided books, blogs, courses, and other.

The four presenters included three researchers who have created how-to guides for communicating evidence, a journalist who brings research to wider audiences, and a member of the Georgia State Senate who uses facts for better policy making. The lessons shared in the workshop can help all researchers be more effective data communicators, both in publishing research papers and reports, as well in the classes scholars teach in college, presentations to our academic peers at conferences, working with our communities through local news media, and to both local, state, and federal policymakers through expert testimony.

Here is a quick pass through the presentations:

Data Visualizations and Presentation Skills

Jonathan Schwabish (Urban Institute)

  • Follow five main strategies to create your charts and graphs: show the data, reduce the clutter, integrate graphics and text, try a small multiples approach, and begin your graphing work by making everything gray.
  • Use your last slide wisely: write your main take-away, rather than a “Thank you!”, which doesn’t tell your audience anything about your content.
  • When it comes to your overall data communication strategy, consider using a pyramid structure. The Urban Institute uses this model for its communication efforts with its hundreds of researchers.

Writing Policy Briefs

Kate Peters (Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta)

  • Know your audience. Your audience will determine the tone, assumptions, and complexity of your writing.
  • Follow a logical structure. It may be helpful to use a courtroom analogy. Suppose you are a lawyer defending a client and you have two minutes to grab the jury’s attention.  Begin with a strong claim and support that claim with the evidence that follows: “My client is innocent. They are innocent because of 1, 2, and 3. Here’s the evidence on 1, here is the evidence on 2, here is the evidence on 3. So, it’s quite clear my client is innocent.” Similarly, use this pyramid structure for paragraphs: Main message, the three dimensions that support the message, and evidence on each.
  • Use additional aids such as headings and take-aways to structure your writing. These will enable the reader to skim and more quickly find the answers to their questions. Use similar thought process for policy briefs, blogs and social media postings.
  • Enlist readers for feedback: friends, non-experts (the “any” reader) and experts in the field.

Working with Journalists

Rebecca Grapevine (healthcare journalist for the Atlanta Business Chronicle)

  • Journalists often have tight turnaround times, oftentimes just hours. Being available and being brief will go a long way. Respond to emails ASAP & share your phone number so the journalist can text you about availability or with follow-up questions.
  • Let media know that you are an expert willing to talk. Offer to provide background and context when a journalist is not on a tight deadline or working on a specific story. Reach out to journalists via email, in person, and on social media. Talk to the public relations team at your institution and your professional organizations.
  • Print journalists usually need a photo to run with your story. Having a high-res jpg, like a headshot or you out in the field, ready to go at the time of the interview will be very helpful. You may want to consider creating a Dropbox with images journalists can use — that way you can just share the link whenever you have an interview.

Developing a Strategy

Florence LeCraw (practicing physician at Northside Hospital in Atlanta and adjunct professor at the Andrew Young School at Georgia State University)

  • Getting evidence into hands of policy makers involves creating a useful and comprehensive strategy.
  • Distinguish between educating (always encouraged) and advocacy (not permitted by researchers under many circumstances).
  • Learn how to get your message across (the “Elevator pitch” of your job market paper in an interview, for example) when have only two minutes.

I cannot thank you enough for bringing this to APPAM. We have such incredible intellectual capital to share on policy issues across the specrum, but the field is SO bad at communicating outside of academic outlets (which is pretty useless). I hope this becomes a regular event!

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion wrapped up the session, and included Chuck Hufstetler (R-District 52, GA), Georgia State Senator. We discussed effective methods researchers and their teams can use to get research evidence in front of him and his staff. We discussed the challenges of having numerous demands on time, political pressures, and more.

This is just a brief window into this event. Participants found a lot of value in the entire afternoon with conversations throughout the room generating a lot of ideas and excitement.

Reading List

Writing Skills:The Little Book of Research Writing by Varanya Chaubey

Data Visualization and Presentation: The Art and Science of Data Visualization asynchronous video course

Strategy Techniques: Art of Conflict Management asynchronous video course

Data Visualization in Excel: A Guide for Beginners, Intermediates, and Wonks by Jonathan Schwabish

Better Data Visualizations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks by Jonathan Schwabish

Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks by Jonathan Schwabish

Elevate the Debate: A Multilayered Approach to Communicating Your Research by Jonathan Schwabish