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Five Steps to Translate Your Research Reports Into English

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Five Steps to Translate Your Research Reports Into English

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 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 are a rich supply of groundbreaking reports and important evaluation results that 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 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 the 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 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 to need to add context to the report to make it relevant to any audience 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 to you.  What strikes you? What seems new? What’s confusing? Make a note of it. What interests you, as someone who is not steeped in the subject, may well interest your audience.

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 about 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 three top 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.


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(c) 2011 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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