This section will help you adapt and present your findings in order to engage different audiences.
By working through this section you will be able to:
- understand the principles of creating effective messages and how to develop messages for different audiences
- explore different methods of research presentation and communication
- turn planning into action through a communications plan.
There are three parts to this section:
- Creating messages.
- Effective ways to present research findings.
- Turning planning into action.
In order to engage your audiences in the detail of your research you must first gain their attention. Messages are the headlines of your research communications and a means of flagging to audiences that there is something in your findings that is of interest or benefit to them. They can also help to create impact across your communications – ensuring a consistent, coherent presentation of findings across different media and spokespersons or authors.
The number of channels and ways to present research findings is growing. New technologies are giving researchers the opportunity to represent their data and findings in new ways.
This element of the toolkit explores a mixture of traditional routes for communicating research findings – with tips, advice and principles provided by researchers with a track record in communications impact. It also highlights some of the new tools and techniques available.
Once you are clear on your strategic direction, target audiences, messages, what channels are best for communicating your study, etc, you will need to translate these into tangible actions. By setting out what communications will happen, and when, you can schedule activity for each phase of the study; time the communication of your findings to align with relevant events; and ensure that everyone involved in the communication of your research is acting in a coordinated way.
Create messages: a template
Ideas for high impact presentations
How to engage conference audiences with a memorable presentation
'A presentation is a sequence of concrete examples and stories that snap together to form a compelling argument.'
Chip and Dan Heath, Making presentations that stick – free online resource
There are many simple presentation techniques to help you engage your audience. Here we provide an overview of the key principles to follow, some of the newer technologies you can use, and how to create a high impact poster.
Tried and tested principles for a strong presentation
Be clear about the overarching argument you are making
Structure your presentation around your core argument, using stories and examples to ground the ideas. This makes it more likely that your presentation will be remembered. Make sure your content reflects the theme and broader aims of the event.
Your presentation should provide only a snapshot of your research
If you try and do justice to your many years of study in a short time slot, you are more likely to overwhelm than enlighten. Focus on up to three major points that you want to communicate, and devote at least half of your presentation to these points. This means stripping out almost all unnecessary details that don’t support your headline messages.
Take time to think through the relevance of your research to the audience
Tailor your presentation to reflect their knowledge, interests and concerns. A presentation to a lay audience would be framed very differently to what you might present to academic colleagues. It sounds obvious, but it is surprising how often this is overlooked. When presenting to an academic audience, don’t dwell so long on your methodology that you run out of time to engage them in the findings.
Bring some of your own personality to the presentation
If you show people why this research question matters to you, you may also tap into their interests and motivations. Smile at your audience and make eye contact with them.
Don’t overlook the powerful roles that humour, curiosity and surprise play in injecting and sustaining interest
Humour can be difficult to pitch, especially for an international audience, but if you think you can strike the right note it’s a very effective way of bringing your audience onside. You can also inspire curiosity among your audience by posing questions and revealing the answers. This works particularly well in cases where your research findings may be unexpected or counterintuitive.
If you need to plan for a conference presentation, you might find this checklist helpful.
Newer technology and approaches
Developments in technology have greatly enhanced researchers’ abilities to produce presentations with high visual impact, to use multimedia and to interact with their audience. Here we provide a brief overview of some of the latest trends.
Aiming for greater visual impact
There are lots of ways to make academic presentations more visually engaging.
Professor Ronald Berk has analysed the research findings on the effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations. He emphasises the role that good imagery plays in transferring knowledge. He encourages academics to use ‘bold, colourful, 2D (not 3D), high impact, high quality, strong, dynamic (animated) graphics (photos, charts, graphs, tables, diagrams) that make a specific point with no detail’.
A Prezi presentation can have great visual impact. The tool is generally more useful than PowerPoint for non-linear presentations as it enables the user to zoom in and out, and to skip forwards and backwards.
The presentation style, PechaKucha, which originated in Japan in 2003, is a fast-paced, image-rich presentation in which 20 slides are presented, each lasting 20 seconds. This approach is suitable for events where audiences are expected to listen to a number of presentations in a short space of time.
Making effective use of multimedia and music
Another growing trend is for researchers to include film, audio, animations and even a soundtrack in their presentations. In his paper (mentioned above), Professor Berk points to research that shows how music can help to sustain attention and make a presentation more memorable.
Embedding rich media in your presentation is easier to achieve than ever, and there is no shortage of online guides to help you do this.
Involving your audience
Event technologies now provide more opportunities for researchers to interact with their audience in real time, either in person or online. The more you can actively involve your audience in a presentation, the more impact you are likely to have. Check in advance with the event organiser about the facilities they have to enable live voting or to crowdsource questions from the audience – for example, through the use of Sli.do.
There are also simpler ways to engage your audience. These include posing questions for them to consider as you present, asking for a show of hands on a given question, or involving them in a short exercise.
When Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, Dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath, opens a presentation about her work studying behaviour change in the workplace, she sometimes asks her audience to pick up their pen in their opposite hand and write. She then asks them how this made them feel. This simple, practical exercise encourages her audience to identify with the more abstract insights from the research she presents.
Creating a high-impact conference poster
Few people producing conference posters pay enough attention to the importance of visual impact. This means that by following a few simple tips, you can easily make your poster stand out.
- Pay as much attention to the design and visual approach as you pay to the text.
- Choose a theme that is going to be of most relevance to your audience, providing only a snapshot of the study in relation to this theme.
- Hone down the supporting information to reinforce only two to three key messages about the research.
- Make sure there is lots of white space on the poster, complemented by concise copy and striking images, diagrams and/or photographs.
- If your aim is to network, make sure you are near the poster during breaks so that you can engage interested parties in a conversation about the work.
- Times Higher Education’s top 10 tips for presenting at academic conferences.
- A summary of research on the effective use of PowerPoint by Ronald Berk, Professor Emeritus in Biostatics and Measurement at Johns Hopkins University.
- A guide to making memorable presentations by Chip and Dan Heath.
- To watch a master in the art of presentations at work, watch a video of the late Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institute.
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Conference presentation checklist: download
A successful presentation will largely depend on the extent to which you prepare. This means you should do the following.
- Understand your audience: try to gather as much information as you can about their interests, attitudes and information needs. What do they already know about your subject, and how does it relate to their daily concerns? How do you reflect their interests in your content, language and approach? For international conferences, how can you adapt your messages to non-UK contexts? What words, acronyms or figures of speech may not be clear to people who speak English as a second language?
- Know how to engage and connect with them: talk to your audience and not at them. Demonstrate that you have thought about their interests. Use stories, questions, ‘show of hands’ exercises and examples.
- Be clear about how your presentation fits into the programme: check who else is presenting and their likely angle on the topic. Be aware if your research is likely to overlap with some of the other work presented. If you are presenting a very different view from the rest of the speakers, you may need to identify ways to bring the audience with you.
- Keep it simple: aim to communicate up to three core messages. Make sure at least half of your speaking time is devoted to these points. If using charts or images, they should illustrate one of your key points. Exclude any unnecessary detail that may distract from this.
Working with the media
Should you engage with the media?
Traditional mass media (newspapers, trade press, broadcast news) offers a platform for disseminating research findings to a huge audience. If your research catches the attention of journalists, the media can quickly raise the profile of an issue or an individual. It is also a significant tool when trying to engage policymakers and influencers. All of this means that being able to harness the power of the media in the right situation is a highly valuable communications skill.
Media coverage does, however, come with some risks – the main one being that an aspect of your study or findings may be misrepresented. There is also the question of return on time invested: if the news agenda on the day goes in a different direction, the work you have put into generating coverage may not return a result at all.
Deciding whether to invest time in engaging journalists and securing media coverage for your study is, initially, a question of weighing up the risks and opportunities in the following table.
Is your research newsworthy?
Before embarking on media work it is necessary to take an objective look at whether your research is truly ‘newsworthy’. Newsworthiness does not have an automatic connection to the quality of the study. Some research has an appeal to journalists, some less so.
Research with media appeal often has the following qualities.
- It reveals something new – the findings can point to meaningful change or the potential for change.
- The findings or subject are of interest to the media outlet’s audience. In some instances this could be quite specialised (such as Nursing Times) but the principle is that this needs to relate to something that an audience already knows and cares about.
- The findings add to a body of knowledge on a topic that currently has high public, policy or practitioner interest.
Not all research will lend itself to the media agenda. If this is the case, there are other communications options available to reach your audiences.
Packaging your story
A recurrent theme in media outlets is that resources are scarce. Therefore, the easier it is for a journalist to cover your research and findings, the better. You may wish to consider the following when presenting your story.
- We are hardwired to respond to stories. The more human interest or impact your research findings can demonstrate, the higher the news interest is likely to be.
- Cover the ‘who, what, where, when, how?’ basics when setting out your press release (see resources below to link to detailed guidance on this) but also answer the ‘so what?’ (Why does this matter? What could this change? Who or what could this influence or have an impact on?).
- Give examples of the people this may affect and, even better, provide case studies of people that journalists are able to interview to give life to a story.
- Provide brief, accessible background notes that set your study in context. Journalists may know very little about your research area – help them to understand it quickly.
- Enable access. Line up the potential spokespersons and make sure that they are available. Be available and willing to answer the phone and provide duplicate or additional information depending on the journalist’s needs.
- Provide images: infographics, photos, simple charts – anything to clearly and concisely illustrate your findings.
- News outlets are multiplatform – every magazine has a website, Twitter feed, Instagram account, etc. If you can provide material for each of these channels you are maximising your exposure in that media outlet.
- Proximity, particularly for TV journalists, is important. Long-distance travel is only possible for the highest ranking news stories. You will need to ensure that spokespersons and locations are within easy reach or, if resources allow (perhaps via a university press office), supply your own video footage.
Linking to ‘breaking news’
There may be times when your research becomes newsworthy because of other developments in the news agenda. It may be possible to contribute to these stories, either as a source of expert knowledge, or comment (if your findings are not yet available), or to highlight your findings if they have been published. But what is the best way to approach the media in these circumstances?
- Be sure that you can add something new or different to the debate.
- Act fast. Package what you think are the relevant aspects of your knowledge or findings and approach journalists quickly.
- Link whatever you have to the breaking news – don’t assume that journalists will make the direct connection if it needs some explanation.
- Twitter or email is ideal for these approaches but ensure that your headline summarises what you can contribute in a punchy way or it may get overlooked.
- Think about national and local media. If it is an international story, can you add a national perspective? Or if it is a national story, is there something that you can supply that paints the picture regionally?
If you are associated with a university or organisations with a communications team, you may have access to a media database. These are searchable under keywords (eg health correspondent) and are a good place to start to understand the key journalists in your area of research.
Journalists use Twitter, so following them and offering insight or information in order to build a relationship with them should pay dividends when it comes to issuing your media information.
Any monitoring services that you have in place (eg Google Alerts) should indicate who is writing about a subject on the web. However, free services rarely give a comprehensive view of media coverage – they should not be used in isolation.
Finally, any opportunities you have to meet with journalists and correspondents face-to-face are invaluable. The major national conferences can be good for this but be prepared: you will need to be able to sum up what you are doing and why it may be of interest in a succinct and accessible way. Even if you are not able to meet them in person, knowing which journalists attended a conference can be a strong indication of their interest in this area.
When you do secure coverage, ensure that you amplify it by tweeting and emailing links to it to your contacts and stakeholders. Remember to alert key stakeholders in your organisation, as well as research partners and funders.
If your organisation offers the opportunity to attend a training course on working with the media, it is well worth the time if you are going to actively pursue media coverage of your work. These courses offer invaluable tips (usually from media professionals) on radio and TV interview styles, how to avoid jargon, and speaking in concise, plain English to get your points across. They also usually give people a chance to try all these out in simulations of a range of media interactions.
- The Economic and Social Research Council’s best practice guide for working with the media includes practical guidance on writing press releases, giving interviews, etc.
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) also provides guidance on working with the media, including local radio, writing for a non-specialist audience, etc.
- For guidance on how to communicate controversial subjects, how to handle interviews in different formats and how to manage any follow-on correspondence with interested patients and families, see the Wellcome Trust’s How to work with the media.
- The Science Media Centre has published top tips for scientists undertaking media work, which also contains checklists to help you prepare for interviews.
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Creative data presentation
No matter how comprehensive and revealing your data set might be, raw data do not mean very much to most people. Researchers are increasingly exploiting interactive tools, data visualisation methods, story-telling methods and film to make their research data more easily accessible and impactful.
Below are a summary of tips and a range of techniques you can use to present your data more effectively and make your findings stand out.
Setting clear objectives
The starting point is to be clear about the purpose of communicating your data. This will help you filter and prioritise areas of content. Consider the following.
- Who do you want to engage?
- How might your findings or data be relevant to their interests?
- What do you want to achieve through your communication with them?
Aiming for simplicity
The golden rule of communicating data to policy, practice and public audiences is to simplify wherever possible. Too much information is overwhelming. Here are some general principles.
- Try to identify an overarching story or argument that the findings or data illustrate or support.
- Strip out any unnecessary details that do not reinforce this.
- When developing interactive tools, ensure that users can get to the answer that is most relevant to them easily and quickly.
- If you are producing an infographic or image, aim to communicate just one message through the data visualisation.
If you have spent years gathering and refining a complex set of research data, it can be an uncomfortable process isolating just one or two aspects of your work to share with wider audiences.
It might help to think of some of the tools below as merely providing a gateway into your research. They can never do justice to the full picture, but they might serve to hook someone’s interest in a way that enables you to start a conversation about what the research means and its relevance to them.
Enabling your audience to interact with your data
Whether it’s through the use of spreadsheets that can be manipulated or online data sets that can be filtered (such as those provided through the Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust’s Quality Watch), researchers have more options than ever before to enable others to interact with their data.
Dr Marisa Miraldo, Associate Professor in Health Economics at Imperial College London Business School, has used interactive tools to communicate her research data on regulation and competition in the health care sector.
Her research team has found that policymakers are more likely to respond positively to evidence if they can use it to generate further information or insights specific to their context. Her team also believe that data need to be presented in a way that enables health commissioners and service providers to assess where they sit on a given range of data points and/or to identify outliers.
'It is particularly powerful when we are able to present our data in formats that enable others to introduce their own figures to the model and interact with the results. If research users can quickly grasp the implications of the data for them, we’ve found they will engage much more fully with our findings.'
Dr Marisa Miraldo, Associate Professor in Health Economics, Imperial College London Business School
Data visualisation techniques
'Visualisation is merely a process. What we actually do when we make a good chart is get at some truth and move people to feel it – to see what couldn’t be seen before. To change minds. To cause action.'
Scott Berinato, Senior editor, Harvard Business Review and author of Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations
Translating information or data into a simple graphic or chart is easy to achieve thanks to a wide range of tools now available. Use of these visuals can be particularly effective on social media channels like Twitter, where image-led updates are much more frequently shared and can help to prompt interest in your research.
Data visualisations tend to fall into one of the following two categories.
- Declarative data visualisations aim to communicate a specific message. This means your team needs to decide the one thing they would like to communicate above all else with each visual presentation. Your graphic or chart should then be designed around this single message, so that the headline, labelling, colour scheme and data points all reinforce it.
- Exploratory data visualisations enable users to explore the information for themselves. They depend on an intuitive user interface and clarity on the users’ likely needs and interests. Producing them is also generally more intensive on time and resources. Remember also that the more complexity you add, the more likely it is that the data visualisation won’t be compatible with mobile devices.
The Guardian’s data journalism site is a good source of examples.
If you are commissioning design support for a data visualisation, expect to spend close to £1,000 for a single flat infographic and closer to £5,000 for an animated chart.
When your budget does not allow for this, there is a wide range of DIY tools available online. See the resources section for more information.
Film can also enable researchers to communicate their research in dynamic and compelling ways. However, producing films can be very time consuming, and creating an engaging film is likely to require some expertise in the medium.
The best films aim to communicate only one or two core arguments, and are designed around the needs and interests of their audience. They can combine interviews with reportage footage and animated graphs. They help researchers to tell a more human story about their research ideas.
Films must be kept short. Aim for no longer than 2–3 minutes, or less if used as part of a longer presentation.
The time and investment involved in making a film is normally only worthwhile if you have very engaging content, and a strategy for ensuring that the film is seen by the audience you want to reach.
Where this applies, you can use film on your website, share it through social media channels, embed footage in conference presentations and at meetings and events, or email it out to research users. By uploading film to YouTube, you can also increase visibility of content in Google searches.
With thanks to Anya Pearson at Soapbox, speaker at the think tank communicators’ group WonkComms, for sharing tips on the tools and resources to use.
- Read this article on the use of data visualisation from Scott Berinato.
- Financial Times subscribers can access The Chart Doctor for practical ideas on how to present data.
- See this profile of Professor Hans Rosling, who helped set a new standard in the communication of statistics.
Data visualisation tools
Canva: a quick and easy way to create slides that can be downloaded as images and dropped into PowerPoint. Large library of free visual elements. www.canva.com
Easel.ly: provides a set of infographic templates that can be quickly adapted by changing text, colours and images. www.easel.ly
Flat Icon: a constantly updated bank of free icons for use in your presentations, reports and other documents. These should always be attributed. www.flaticon.com
The Noun Project: another source of useful icons. These should always be attributed.http://thenounproject.com
Open Heat Map: this free tool allows you to create heat maps from a spreadsheet of data. Watch the introductory video to see how it works. www.openheatmap.com
Datawrapper: a tool for creating interactive charts and graphs. The results can either be captured as a screengrab or embedded into a website using the HTML code provided.http://datawrapper.de
Highcharts: a tool for creating interactive visuals that is free for non-profit organisations. www.highcharts.com
Google Charts: a set of HTML libraries for producing online charts. https://developers.google.com/chart
Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign are the standard tools that could be used by a designer to create static infographics. Adobe has useful tutorials and forums related to using its tools.
Illustrator tutorials: https://helpx.adobe.com/illustrator/tutorials.html
InDesign tutorials: https://helpx.adobe.com/indesign/tutorials.html
Data visualisation examples
FiveThirtyEight: a data journalism start-up from journalist and statistician Nate Silver.http://fivethirtyeight.com
FlowingData: the blog of Nathan Yau, author of Data Points, and Visualising Data.http://flowingdata.com
DataViz: improving data visualisation for the public sector. This research was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government to better understand the potential for data visualisation solutions.www.gov.uk/government/publications/dataviz-improving-data-visualisation-for-the-public-sector
Improving Visualisation: an online resource with examples that link to the research above. A great source of inspiration for new ways of visualising data.www.improving-visualisation.org
Information is Beautiful: the website of David McCandless, a data journalist and information designer. His blog showcases brilliant examples of beautiful data visualisations.www.informationisbeautiful.net
YouGov Profiler: a free tool from YouGov that utilises data it has gathered. https://yougov.co.uk/profileslite#
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