Graffiti of a tyrannosaurus rex wearing a baseball cap, symbolic of urban sprawl and rapid cultural change.

Producing knowledge for social change

by Caroline Wanjiku Kihato

“If you want what you are saying to be heard, then take your time to say it so the listener will actually hear it.”

~ Maya Angelou

I recently sent a migration policy report to a friend to ask him whether there were any issues he wanted addressed when it went to the legislature. He is an entrepreneur, and the policy, if implemented, would have had a direct impact on how he does business-whether he could access the necessary skills in the labour market, expand the market for his goods on the African continent, or start his business in neighbouring countries. The migration policy would lay the principles for the movement of people: labour, entrepreneurs, investors, students, and tourists. These decisions would directly affect the trajectory of his business.

I thought the link was obvious.

He came back to me underwhelmed.

“There’s a lot of boilerplate stuff that seems relevant and well researched… I understood the words, but I did not understand the point,” he said to me.

“Wait, so you don’t see how this policy could affect your business growth? Your future or your children’s future?” I countered.

What seemed obvious to me, was not obvious to him. With an MBA at a prestigious school in the US, it was not because he lacked the capacity to understand.

This exchange got me thinking about how we researchers take our audiences for granted. We make little effort to spell out the “so what?”, burying key insights in mountains of “boiler plate” data. We do not do enough to tell people why they should care and why a piece of research, a policy or legislation should matter to them.

We are convinced that the facts ‘speak for themselves’.

But facts alone do not always lead to policy change. Inundated with information and competing political and social interests, policy actors and stakeholders have little bandwidth to read through long reports to figure out what might be relevant to them. Policy-relevant research must do more to connect with its audience by communicating why it is important, and how the changes will impact the audience.

Research matters

There is a lot at stake for those of us working in the global south, with an interest in increasing the social impact of our work. With growing inequality, rising poverty levels, and increasingly uncertain futures, it is imperative that our research makes an impact. It is critical that we provide every possibility for the information we produce to drive positive social change.

How do we do this?

In his book, Effective Data Storytelling, Brent Dykes argues that if you are unable to communicate valuable insights effectively, they will not deliver on their potential.

Dykes offers the three E’s-steps we could consider to strengthen the impact of our research, and turn data into a strategic asset for decision making.

Explain: Move from information to insights, from exploration to explanation. My friend’s ‘underwhelming’ response to the policy document underscores this point. He appreciated that the information was probably useful, but did not understand why. Our role as policy researchers is to point our audiences towards insights, relationships or trends that are important in helping them make strategic decisions. Insights could be surprises, new understandings or ways of seeing things. Insights could also be facts that have been hidden, which when seen change how we understand our contexts. Whether old or new, an insight provides explanatory power that helps guide the audience towards understanding why the information is important to them.

Enlighten: Taken literally this involves shedding light on your insight. It involves being mindful about how you present research insights to your audience, and thinking about how their senses receive it. We have all heard the adage, “form follows function”. For policy researchers this means thinking about what we want our audience to do with the research, then identifying the most appropriate channels to disseminate it. For data analysts it may involve using creative ways of visualising data. Those working with wordy reports, it is about being creative about design and presentation: how we use fonts, colour, white space, quote marks, illustrations, and so on, to train our audiences’ eyes towards the key messages. For those working with radio or voice as a medium, it implies thinking about intonation, story arc, pauses, and so on.

Engage: is about evoking emotion. This is about how we combine our words, numbers, visuals, into stories that resonate with our audience. When we engage our audience, we connect our research to their experiences in ways that reveal why they should care. As humans, we are wired for stories; we make sense of our world through the stories we tell ourselves. Facts lose steam and become irrelevant if we cannot connect them to personal experience. Moreover, it is the stories we tell ourselves about the facts that determine the actions we take. Stephen Few, leader in data visualisation, put it this way: “research and data has an important story to tell, it relies on you to give it a clear convincing voice.”

Producing knowledge for social impact is complex.

It means changing our production processes, working outside of disciplinary silos, and involving artists, designers, and communication specialists early on in our research process.

It means navigating complacency and resistance to change. Changing organisational processes is challenging, but with the right leadership, team and creativity, our research can have greater social impact.