Does paying attention to framing your research results help you to communicate them better?

4 January 2021

Yes, it does. And as an experienced research communicator, I can say this with confidence.

Over the years, there have been many occasions where I have not understood the research outcomes presented to me in reports by colleagues. You could say that I didn’t have the technical knowledge to understand them, and in cases where an article is written for a very specialist or technical audience this could be true. But I am talking about research intended for a broader policy or practitioner audience. If I cannot understand them, how will external audiences?

This is partly about clarity of writing, which is a skill that is not easy to master. It’s important to keep your audience in mind, to avoid (or clearly explain) jargon and not to assume facts or knowledge by the reader. In this article, however, I would like to take this one step further to talk about framing of research.

Framing is about presenting your research outcomes to a specific audience so that they will understand it in the way that you intend them to. How you frame or communicate your research results can influence behavioural or attitudinal outcomes. Thus, framing is an important tool in any research communicator’s tool box.

The first step to well-communicated research results is a clearly defined research and engagement objective. This objective goes beyond seeking to publish an academic paper or book, to think about how the knowledge can be applied and used in the real world.

To ensure relevant and useful research, research objectives should be concise, logical and realistic. Tips to do this include: developing your research questions based on a real-world problem or issue. Discussing and debating within your team the key questions or issues your research will address, and narrow down the problem statement or issue so that it is specific. Identify upfront research outputs for your different audiences. Module 2 in this toolkit is a useful tool for identifying an impact objective within a team.

Clearly and well-defined research objectives will actually help in all aspects of the research process. For example in defining the boundaries of the research question, defining data required to address the research question, and identifying data sources to make the research meaningful to the intended audience.

When it comes to communicating research results, here are a few tips and techniques on framing and messaging:

Make it memorable: To develop strong messages that stick, keeping it simple and catchy can be impactful. For example, Newton’s theory of gravity is known by many through the simple sentence ‘what goes up must come down’. Heath and Heath (2007)’s research identifies six basic traits for making messages stick, one of them is simplicity, other examples include unexpectedness (counterintuitive or unusual findings might generate interest and curiosity), or emotions (helping readers connect to the human implications of your research, rather than the abstract).

Use a narrative or story: Facts and stories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that shows that stories help us to remember facts. Narratives and stories can help us to communicate complex research ideas and findings to lay audiences.

Use meaningful headings: Headings and sub-headings are important signposts for readers (especially busy readers who may just quickly scan the headings). Rather than just writing ‘Introduction’ or ‘Problem Statement’, can you tell your reader something about the content? In other words, give them a reason to read, not ignore that section.

Include visuals: Graphics and images can be really powerful communication tools. There are plenty of free data tools (like Canva) that researchers can use to convey key concepts or ideas. Where there is budget you can also work with a professional designer to make it even more impactful.

In conclusion, if you are clear about what you want to communicate to your audience for what purpose, then you can frame your results, and your research will be so much more meaningful.