Writing up and publishing research based on qualitative or mixed methods data is one thing, but most researchers will want to go beyond this, and engage with the wider public and decision makers. This requires a different style of publication, and a different style of writing. We are not talking about journal articles, funders reports, book chapters or a thesis here, but creating short, engaging and impactful summaries of your research that anyone can read and share. Research that just sits on a shelf doesn't change the world!
The aim here is primarily outreach and impact – making sure that your research is read and has applications beyond academia, especially to the general public and decision makers. These could be local or national government, NGOs, funding bodies or service providers. It may even be that your research has implications for a particular group of people, for example those with a particular health condition, demographic group, or work in a certain field. There’s also the increasingly common expectation to should share results with participants.
Generally speaking, outputs and reports for these groups of people should be short and use non-technical language: it’s not enough to just provide with a copy of your thesis or a journal article. Those are almost always written for a very specific audience, academics, and are difficult to read for the general public. Outside academia, most don’t have access to journals which often require subscriptions, and some government departments have cut down on library services in these areas.
In the research I’ve been involved with, we’ve even created short summaries of our research for GPs, clinicians, and health managers: people who are certainly familiar with journal articles, but rarely have the time to read them. It became clear in our discussions with people we were trying to engage with that one page summaries were the best format to get findings read.
It sounds like a lot of extra work at the end of a research project on top of publications, but this can be just as important, possibly even an ethical requirement. Some funding boards and IRBs require the creation of research outputs for lay audiences.
There are plenty of guides to help with writing up qualitative data for articles and book chapters (eg Ryan 2006), but what about writing up qualitative research for non-academic audiences? I’ve written about the challenges of explaining qualitative data before, but these tips below contain more specific advice on creating short, engaging summaries for the general public. They also provide prompts to make you think about promoting your research so it is read by more people, and has more impact.
1. Create specific outputs for each audience
It maybe that there are different groups of people you want to reach: the general public, politicians, or experts in a particular field. Consider creating several short outputs targeted at each one. A short summary written for a lay audience might not have the level of detail a government body would want to see, and you might also want to highlight findings which are interesting to certain readers.
Think about the different groups of people you want to engage with, and draw up a list of what outputs would work best for each one. These don’t have to be written either, it could be a coffee morning, presenting at a meeting, or a short video. Choose a format that works best for each type of audience, and the most important message to get across to each.
2. Link to topical issues
Qualitative research often takes a very in-depth approach to a specific research question, but this depth also means that it can engage with wider but connected themes. It maybe that your research is already on something topical, such as diet or social media. But there maybe important local issues your research can feed into, or wider problems that your research project illustrates a small part of. Engaging with a currently trending issue can not only get more views, but hopefully improve the quality of debate.
Where possible, try and consider issues that are not just part of a short-term media cycle, but are longer trends likely to come up again and again, such as house prices or obesity. It’s not necessary to twist your main finding to make them fit, just find a relevant connection.
3. Tell the story
I think this is the key to communicating qualitative data. People engage with stories about people better than they do with cold reports and statistics. That is why media tends to focus on individual politicians and celebrities more than their policies or what they do, and is also a better way to retain information. Give your stories context and causality (because of this, that happened to this person), and you are following the same basic rules for good storytelling that scriptwriters and novelists follow.
While you can take this in very creative directions, for example creating an animated video story based on one of your participants, it maybe that a box containing a case study is enough to provide a report with illuminating context. Stories are the most powerful part of qualitative research, make sure you use them!
4. Make them visual, and beautiful
People are more likely to pick up and engage with visual outputs, and pictures or other visual elements help people understand and associate with the findings. Try not to rely on generic clip-art or stock photos, choose images that are unique and specific to your work. If it’s not appropriate to include pictures of respondents or the local area, consider talking to artists or photographers that could create or let you use something more abstract.
It’s also important to consider how a research output looks: a written report shouldn’t just be a wall of long text, make sure it is broken up, and has plenty of white-space. It may even be worth getting a designer involved: this often doesn’t cost too much, but can make the output look a lot more professional, tempting to pick up and easier to follow. The same goes for presentations and events too!
Think about creating visualisations of your qualitative data, rather than just a series of quotes. Qualitative analysis software can help with this by making things like word-clouds or visualisations of important findings and connections in the research. Quirkos tries to make visualisations like this easy to understand and export, so check out the rest of the website to see how it can help with qualitative analysis.
5. Explain the methods (but briefly)
When presenting qualitative data, you should consider the fact that many people aren’t familiar with qualitative research or the methods you might have used. Those more used to quantitative data (especially in the public sector) might consider that your sample size is too small, or your research findings aren’t rigorous enough. It can be worth pre-empting these criticisms, but not by being apologetic. Don’t just say that ‘this is a limited study’ or ‘further research is needed’, be positive about the depth of your investigation, how commonly used your methods are, and if appropriate show how your work contradicts with or supports other research.
Have a short section describing your research methods, but don’t provide too much detail. If the reader is interested in this, provide a way for them to read more somewhere else, for example a publication or a project website. It’s better to tease the reader and make them want more, rather than providing too much detail in the first place. Speaking of which:
6. Stay away from the academic debates
Generally, this is not the place for debates on epistemology, ontology or what other academics are saying in the field. While it is sometimes possible to explain these issues with non-technical language, it is probably not something that this audience is interested in.
This can be hard if your research question was specifically focused around, say, a Foucauldian interpretation of language used to reviews of artisan coffee shops, but focus on the findings that are of interest to the general public. This is why just creating a summary of a journal article or full report generally doesn’t work well for a general output.
7. Write for others
Writing a popular output is one thing, but finding readers is hard. So why not find channels that already engage with the group of people you want to reach, and write for them instead. This could be a popular blog on a health condition, a trade magazine or even something for the popular press. Approach these people and ask if they would be interested in a piece about your research, stressing why it would be interesting to their readers. Some are glad for the opportunity to have something to fill space, and if you can demonstrate relevance to a topical issue, journalists might get involved as well.
If you are considering going down the media route, your university may have a press office that could help create press releases, and suggest the right editors and provide training to researchers on being interviewed on radio or TV. Just make sure that the outreach is serving your agenda, not just promoting the university or trying to spark controversy.
Look for relevant events you could present at such as workshops and conferences, since these can be targeted at professionals like health workers, not just academics.
8. Promote your outputs
It’s not good enough to create a report, stick it on your own website and forget about it. You need to promote your outputs and make sure that people can find them. Promotion should also be audience specific: where are my readers, and what do they already engage with? If you are running an event, should you have posters in cafés, or an advert in the local paper?
If you have a project website, this needs to be promoted too. Make sure people can find it if they are searching for issues around your research, and ask other websites in the area to put in a link to your web page. Keywords are important too: what searches are your readers going to make? It’s probably not “qualitative research on peer support for cancer” but “support groups for cancer”. Make sure the right terms appear on your website and as the heading for your outputs.
9. Make them long-term accessible
A one off event or report is great, but only can target people currently looking to engage with your research. Policy makers change year after year, and with health issues, new people will be diagnosed all the time and will look for information.
If you have a project website, you need to consider a long-term strategy for it: make sure it is accessible for a long period of time, and can be updated. The right people should have physical copies of reports, that way they can access them later. There also might be good places to keep distributing summaries, like libraries, community centres or GP surgeries.
It’s also worth coming back to your project and promoting it after a period of time. This is difficult in academia where funding is research and time limited, but set aside a one and two year anniversary and spend time reaching out to new people. Impact and engagement is important in academia, and a fresh attempt at reaching out after a period of time can dramatically increase the number of people reached.
10. Don’t forget social media!
Social media can be a good way to promote your research, as it is fairly easy to find people from the right audience. They may be following a particular person in the field, or declare an interest in a relevant hobby or workplace. Try Linkedin to contact people working in a certain field, or Facebook for getting out to the general public.
However, it is also possible to share findings in social media too. A Tweet is a very small amount of text for a qualitative research project, but is enough to tease a finding and provide a link containing more information. You can also create outputs in the form of infographics, pictures and video which people can share with others.
Creative and varied outputs are more likely to get general engagement, so experiment: make your materials fun and stand out from the crowd to get the word out!