Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest Post: Five Steps to Translate Your Research Reports into English

Today's post is from Susan Parker's Clear Thinking eZine. It's a great publication about reading, writing and communicating research - you can subscribe for free

Five Steps to Translate Your Research Reports into English

Word count: 908
Estimated read time: Less than 4 minutes

When I was in graduate school, I had a very proper British professor who had brilliant insights about the role of women in society. I believed that her ideas mattered and needed to be heard beyond our classroom and the obscure academic publications that she wrote for.

One day after class, I beseeched her to write in a way that would reach more people. I told her that I would help--and that my goal was to get her featured in a popular magazine. She looked bewildered at my suggestion. And she never took me up on it.

While I did not succeed with her, I have "translated" scores of evaluation and research reports into clear English--and I am convinced that there is a rich supply of groundbreaking reports and important evaluation results that many people can benefit from. But this information is often buried in dense, jargon-laden language. As a result, the work does not make the impact that it might.

Foundations and other nonprofits spend millions of dollars each year commissioning research and evaluation projects that may end up on a shelf and read by no more than a few people. One reason these reports do not make an impact is that they are just too hard to get through. We have to make this important work inviting for people to read and learn about.

Here are a few things I have learned that can help you reach a wider audience and disseminate your valuable information:
1. Determine the key audience that you want to reach. It is one of the most important first steps. Don't say the "general public" or even "policymakers." That's too vague. You need to have a clear picture of the key people you really want to read this report. You also need to understand why they would care about what your research says. It's helpful if you can picture one person as you revise this report.
For example, your audience could be a three-term state legislator in California who serves on an education committee. He's heard about the childhood obesity epidemic, but he has not thought much about the connection between healthy students and positive educational outcomes. Your report provides timely data that makes the case that students who are obese or come to school with chronic illnesses do not achieve as well as healthy students do. That's the information that the legislator needs to help convince him to start considering health issues in his policy work.

It is critical to have a particular person in mind as you revise the report. By getting that specific about your audience, ironically, you will reach a much larger group.
2. Get the context. Most research and evaluation reports don't provide readers with enough context to make sense of the findings. You will likely need to add context to the report to make it relevant to the audience that you want to reach.
In a blog post, Jim Canales, president of the James Irvine Foundation, wrote that Irvine's board members spoke of how important contextual information was in making sense of the information that the foundation shared with them.
You may be able to get the context through the research or evaluation proposal. Or you may need to do a little more research.
3. Read the report with the audience in mind and see what jumps out at you. What strikes you? What seems new? What's confusing? Make a note of it. Because you are not steeped in the subject yourself, you have a perspective on what could be truly interesting.
4. Talk to the person who wrote the report. This is imperative. The evaluator or researcher often writes for a particular purpose and narrow audience (sometimes just a program officer at a foundation). Because of this, she won't necessarily include some of the details that might be useful to the people you are trying to reach.
Ask the researcher for her three major findings. Most researchers and evaluators write in the muddy middle, that is, they don't take a step back and report their overarching findings or themes. If the researcher is the least bit unclear, keep asking follow up questions.

These conversations are fun to have. People are often clearer about their work when they just chat about it then when they write about it. And this is work they are passionate about. That passion will come out and you can convey that in the revised report.
5. Find a story to tell. It may be buried in the report or mentioned tangentially. Stories bring flesh and blood to findings. Find a story or example that illustrates each of the top three findings. These stories do not have to be long, but they need to paint a picture that accurately illustrates the key findings.
For example, if a research report talks about the importance of schools working with their communities to achieve better health outcomes for students, find an example of a specific school working with its community to lower smog levels.

Try some of these ideas and, unlike my graduate school professor, the insights in your research and evaluation reports will reach the large audience it deserves.

By Susan Parker of Clear Thinking Communications.
Please visit Clear Thinking Communication's web site at for additional tips on communications for foundations, nonprofits and progressive businesses.

1 comment:

  1. I love how you ALSO did a bolding of the top idea and top text in each paragraph! This really makes a reader want to go on, suddenly it doesn't seem like TLDR! Well done living the principles that you espouse!

    When I was in Lit Critter land back in college, I remember very clearly the day I realized that my teacher wanted me to put more jargon than clear writing into my essays. It struck me as ridiculous that this was what the transfer of knowledge was reduced to, to make people look smarter by the hedge of language they erected around them.

    Since that time, I've come back to my senses, and used big words when necessary, but not to keep people out of a place where they want to go.




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