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What Do We Want? Process and Planning!

It can be very tempting to start thinking about outputs and tools from the outset. However, time spent planning, says Nick Bibby, will pay rewards.

In all sorts of areas of life, it can be tempting to 'get to the good stuff'. Yet in pretty much all of them, just like in research, laying solid foundations is critical to building any kind of success. When it comes to effective communications, it is well worth spending time developing a plan rather than grabbing the first three or four tools that come to mind.

There is a lot of what might be termed 'the default option' in research communications.

Almost without thinking, a shiny new research project has a logo, a website, a Facebook page, a X/Twitter account, and is convening a roundtable with stakeholders almost before it has drawn breath, let alone conducted an interview or picked up a book.

Communication without a purpose is just noise, which is a problem for a number of reasons - not least that we all have quite enough of it in our lives already. We are so bombarded with noise that we have all learned to tune it out - we don't open that email, we don't go to that meeting, we don't read that report, we don't subscribe to that channel. In today's oversaturated environment, we have all become incredibly demanding readers, listeners and viewers.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to provide an overview of what makes for effective communication. I'll map out the general terrain and also explore a few specialist landscapes, such as the fundamentals of working with public policy and the risks and rewards of social media. We might take a little wander through the foothills of impact, and quite possibly get our feet wet along the shores of evaluation. We might even address the dangers of over-extended metaphors.

Over the course of these blogs, I'll also address the basic principles that should underpin any research communication that seeks to be impactful - Trust, Respect, Clarity and Planning. I'll explore some of the ethical questions worth considering when engaging with any external partners, and make the case that the best way to achieve any kind of change in the world is through understanding and respecting the needs, motivations and values of those we're working with.

For now, let's start with some foundational questions that should be addressed at the start of any communications process:

1. Who is my audience?

2. What do I want to say to them?

3. Why do they need to know?

4. Why do they need to know now?

The objective in answering these questions is to be as precise as possible. For the first one in particular, it can be tempting to be vague - 'the general public', 'non-academic audiences', 'stakeholders', 'practitioners', 'policymakers'. And the honest answer to the second one is all-too-often "whatever they're most likely to listen to", which is not a great starting point.

The final two questions are really just another way of saying, "Why should they care?"

When thinking about the first one, it can be useful to imagine the person you would want to convey your message to if you could only pick one. In other words, who needs to hear it. It is often useful to iterate back and forth between the first two questions. The result of your answer to the second question should be that your audience knows, does, thinks, understands or whatever-it-might-be something that they would not know, do, think or understand had you not said it. In many situations with an eye on impact, this can sometimes be put more bluntly: "What do you want them to do?"

Looking at the second question from the other way around helps to provide an answer to the first. If you want to frame, inform or affect a particular change in the world, who (individually and institutionally) is in a position to bring that about?

It is easy to default to hierarchical answers to both of these first two questions, and that is rarely helpful. We assume that change comes about by reaching the most senior person, the most august body or the loudest available means of broadcasting any given call to action.

That means that it is tempting to make the answer to the first question a cabinet secretary or secretary of state. That's one approach, but lasting change comes at least as often from the bottom up as from the top down.

The next two blogs are on identifying the right audience and message, and I don't want to pre-empt too much of those here. However, the issue in the previous paragraph raises two important questions that are also worth considering:

5. How do we think change is accomplished in the world?

6. What is the objective of communicating this research?

Hierarchical, top-down, centre-out approaches are easier to demonstrate and record, but that's not the same as saying they are the most effective. More fragmented or bottom-up approaches achieve change in different ways that may not always lend themselves to neat timescales or pithy recording systems.

It is worth being clear that neither approach is innately better or more productive than the other - change tends to come about gradually and through networks of people, but single powerful actors can also frustrate or enable that process. Nor is one approach necessarily more achievable than the other from a communications perspective. Large disparate groups can be just as difficult to connect with as distant individuals with other priorities. In practice, a well-rounded strategy probably needs a bit of both. They require just as much precision as each other, albeit using very different tools.

Before digging in any deeper, it may be useful to think through the six questions raised in this blog in relation to your own research or any upcoming projects you may be considering.

  • research and impact offers communications workshops and training to academics and their colleagues. If your department or centre would be interested in knowing more, why not get in touch?

  • Photo by Freddy Castro on Unsplash.

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