How to drive impact: writing for a non-academic audience - Researcher blog

How to drive impact: writing for a non-academic audience

5 mins


Sharing your research with audiences outside the traditional academic sphere has excellent potential to raise awareness of your findings, maximize their usefulness, and drive impact. Oftentimes, however, it’s the people outside of academia that have the potential to put your research findings into action. It’s crucial to remember that non-academic audiences, such as the public, policymakers, or industry practitioners, are unlikely to be as familiar with your research topic as you are. So, how do you communicate your findings to this audience in an easily digestible, engaging way? Read on to uncover three essential tactics for connecting with the hearts and minds of non-academic audiences. 

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Why should you write for non-academics? 

The answer to this question is pretty simple: communicating your research to a non-academic audience paves the way for increased readership and a broader potential impact

Reaching out to non-academics often means sharing your work and engaging with important stakeholders and decision-makers, including policymakers. Such audiences can use and translate your research into actionable changes and improvements for society at large.  

But policymakers aren’t the only stakeholders to keep in mind when presenting your research findings. Getting in touch with and building relations with journalists, media outlets, or the press can help attract media attention and coverage for your research. This is another way to get your work discovered, achieve greater reach, and establish your presence as a credible and experienced researcher in your field. 

In addition, interacting with different audiences can support opportunities for connections and collaborations with other stakeholders, such practitioners in the field. Your work can interest, engage, or inspire communities beyond active scientists resulting in further representation of your work through new ideas or discoveries. 

When writing for a non-academic audience, it’s really important to think about who you are writing for, how your research will help them, and why they should keep reading and engage with your work. 

Tactic #1: Understand who your audience are and what they need 

There are two main audience groups outside academia you should consider sharing your research with as they can apply your findings in a variety of ways in their daily work: (a) professionals and practitioners, and (b) policymakers, science writers, journalists, and the public. To effectively communicate your research implications and increase the chances of making an impact, it is essential to understand the different needs of these two important groups.  

Professionals and practitioners need to get answers to practical questions and make informed decisions while at their desks, onsite, in the field, or with patients to improve practice. This specialist audience has some understanding of subject-specific terminology, but also limited time to make decisions and take action. When communicating with this group, you should highlight the practical implications of your research. 

Policymakers, science writers, journalists, and the public require clear information on the decisions, steps, and actions that can be taken, or pitfalls that can be avoided to make positive change. To effectively communicate with this non-specialist audience, you will need to share the key takeaways of your work using simple language and supporting content, such as videos, infographics, or social media posts. 

Tactic #2: Help your audience relate to your research through storytelling 

After identifying your audience and their needs, the next step is to understand how they can benefit from your research. Some key things to reflect on are whether your work relates to a current policy issue or if it has relevance to your local community. Plus, you can think about whether your research could help reassess existing practices or aid decision making.  

To bring your research to life and help audiences identify with your work, you can employ storytelling techniques. There is evidence to suggest that narratives and storytelling are easier to digest and non-expert audiences find them more engaging than traditional scientific communication. 

Following a narrative structure can help your research facts and findings flow more eloquently from one element to the next. This will make it easier for your non-academic audience to understand what your key messages are. 

Yet, numbers and data cannot persuade an audience in full on their own. Your research also needs to speak to your audience’s emotions. You can incorporate your research participants’ voices into the narrative or include your own experience as a researcher to make your findings and implications more human. Such individual perspectives can appeal to your audience’s emotions, and support identification and engagement with your research. 

Tactic #3: Be concise and add a plain language summary 

Communicating your research to a non-academic audience is like talking about your work to a member of your family—you need to keep things simple and clear. Here are some key elements to consider: 

What’s more important—what you say or how you say it? When it comes to non-academic audiences, the answer is both. Develop a writing style that is specific and concise. Shorter articles are much easier to absorb. Use active language and definitive statements, and choose an interesting and brief title that clearly describes your research. Moreover, avoid jargon and academic buzzwords that can easily cause confusion. You should also spell out any acronyms—especially in your title—so your research is easy to understand and discover. 

You can consider adding a plain language summary (PLS), especially if your research topic is particularly complex. PLSs are clear, short, standalone documents that summarize the contents of scientific and medical research for non-specialist audiences, including patients, the public, non-native English speaking professionals, media and science communicators, or policymakers. A study analyzing article metrics found that 60% of articles with a PLS were accessed significantly more than those without one. 

You should write your plain language summary in a way that is accessible and understandable to a broad, non-expert audience. Plus, your summary should reflect the same scientific messages and conclusions as your scientific paper. You can also consider alternative formats other than text, such as infographics, visual or video abstracts. For instance, there is evidence to suggest that articles with video abstracts have 82% more full-text downloads.  

Writing for non-academics can be challenging regardless of your discipline as it requires using a different language style and set of principles. Yet, communicating your research in a way that speaks to the needs of different groups can lead to a more significant impact beyond academia. 

Use these strategies to increase the impact of your research