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Find the Gold in Your Research

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Find the Gold in Your Research

Some of my clients ask me to “find the gold” in their research or evaluation projects. Here’s what I mean: my clients know that there is important information buried within a report but it’s hard to find and decipher. That’s often because researchers or evaluators haven’t stepped back and done two things:

(1)  Determined the big theme or message of their work.

(2) Found the concrete example that makes the big theme or message clear to the audience.

The “Ladder of Abstraction”--A Bad Term for a Great Tool


A tool that I often use to help get at these two important points is something called the “ladder of abstraction,” which was conceived by linguist S.I. Hayakawa. Journalist Roy Peter Clark uses this concept to help reporters tell better stories.

The ladder of abstraction works like this: a story or a program is told in an order much like the rungs of a ladder. The highest rung is the big picture—the overarching theme.  The lowest rung is the concrete detail—examples that illustrate the theme and include stories of real people. The middle rungs make the connections between the top and bottom.

Often researches and evaluators get stuck in the muddy middle rungs of bureaucracy and jargon, which few people understand.

Here’s how Clark describes the problem in the book Telling True Stories: “The world of education offers good examples of the middle of the ladder of abstraction. Participants at school board meetings never discuss critical issues such as literacy or the development of young citizens who can participate in democratic life—ideas at the top of the ladder.”

“Nor is there discussion about the children trying with difficulty to decode the reading in Miss Gallagher’s first grade classroom—the bottom of the ladder. Instead, it’s a world where teachers are referred to as ‘instructional units’ while the conversation is about the ‘scope and sequencing of the language arts curriculum’—the middle of the ladder.”

This description of the middle of the ladder might seem depressingly familiar. You may find that you run into this muddy middle often in the research or evaluation reports that you get on your desk. You know that these reports contain crucial insights for policymakers or other audiences. But it is hard to tease them out because the reports rarely contain the big picture thematic statement or the concrete example to make it real.

Here are two illustrations to show what I’m talking about.

Example 1: From “Learning Supports” to Healthy Kids in School

Typical muddy middle:  A research report focuses on the importance of “learning supports” in helping kids succeed in school. Most people will have no idea what that means. The report describes learning supports in general terms and makes incorrect assumptions that the audience understands this insider jargon.  

Top of the ladder of abstraction: The report is really about the critical importance of kids coming to school healthy and well-nourished so that they can learn.

Bottom of the ladder of abstraction: A 10-year-old student who attends school in a poor neighborhood suffered from persistent asthma but had no health insurance even though he was eligible. He missed 9 days of school last year because of his uncontrolled asthma, in part because the school itself had mold and other “triggers” that exacerbated his asthma. To address the needs of this and other students--20 percent of whom were not covered by health insurance--school officials set up an on-site office at the school that began signing up uninsured kids for public health insurance. Those children began receiving regular health check-ups, missed fewer days of schools and increased their test scores.

The school also reduced asthma triggers by removing furry pets and food from classrooms, decreasing diesel exposures from idling school buses and inspecting for water leaks that could cause mold, which reduced absences because of uncontrolled asthma.

Example 2: From RFID to Technology to Help Addicts


Typical muddy middle: An evaluation report uses “academic speak” and describes  the potential of RFID, GPS and other technology in effecting short-term, cognitive behavioral changes of persistent alcoholics and other people struggling with addiction. 

Top of the ladder of abstraction: The report is really about how cutting-edge technology can help addicts stay sober.

Bottom of the ladder of abstraction: A man named John is on probation for crimes related to his alcohol abuse. John decides to have a computer chip implanted in his arm with a GPS to monitor when he goes to a neighborhood bar or other places that put him at risk for a relapse. One night when he’s feeling anxious, he drives to a bar where he used to regularly get drunk. As soon as he approaches the bar, the GPS sends a signal that notifies his probation officer where he is. The probation officer calls him and urges him to go to an AA meeting instead.

Tips on using the ladder of abstraction to make the most of your research and evaluation reports:

  • Ask researchers and evaluations for their key message in 10 words or less. Keep whittling it down to this size until it sounds real, authentic and clear to an educated layperson. You’ll know.

  • Ask for concrete examples that illustrate the big picture. Make sure that the examples point back to the larger theme.

If you’d like more help in finding the gold in your research and evaluation reports, please get in touch with us. We regularly help our clients unearth compelling findings and clear examples of those findings in their research and evaluation reports.

 Call us at (802) 748-3070 or email to discuss your needs and ideas.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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