Last week, our Communication Research team attended the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media in Atlanta, GA. As speakers reminded us that we were there "to move the needle," I was reminded of Captain Planet. Hey, the mind works in mysterious ways. My biggest takeaway from the conference was more an observation. A path forward. A commitment to combining powers. More specifically, the conference brought together communicators and researchers - all working toward common goals and bringing something unique to the table that alone isn't nearly as powerful - but often the two seemed to be two sides to the same coin, never meeting. I heard communicators. I heard scientists. I heard communicators playing the role of scientists and vice versa (yikes!). But, the best ideas I heard were all products of something I'm not sure they even realized they had in common - the tension between scientists and communicators.
The tension here was evidenced:
Subtlety in our vocabulary.
We heard about (and we even spoke about) evidence-based messages. And, translating scientific evidence to practical tools. The implication here? Science is not a message. Nor is it practical for many audiences. Rather, it's support for something people can more readily use in decision making - a message, a tool, communication.
More overtly in some of the challenges articulated.
In the opening plenary session, CDC ‘s Katherine Lyon Daniel spoke to the tension between communicators who want to get people the information they need and scientists who want to be sure they have sufficient data to ensure that information is complete and accurate. A let's go, no wait dynamic. Remind anyone of the ongoing e-cigarettes dialogue?
This tension, however, is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a powerful tool. We should be deliberate in leveraging it by meeting in the middle and creating something new. Not a Goldilocks middle ground - somewhere in between this and that is just right (though that's certainly better than ignoring either side of the spectrum). More two tectonic plates come together and don't just meet but together create a mountain. We can't just co-exist, we need to co-create. As a team of researchers working closely with communicators and ad agencies, we have fun with this tension every day. A few things we've learned along the way:
Communication is like evaluation - think about it early and often.
Our most successful research efforts have brought end users (e.g., communicators) in the room up front, during the design stage. We often talk about the importance of knowing our (external) audience (most conference presentations focused here), and it's critical we also seek to collaborate with and understand the needs of internal audiences who will be essential in reaching the external audience. How does the creative director need to receive the findings to make best use of it?
Not all evidence is created equal - but not all questions require the same kind of evidence.
A focus group based on a biased moderator guide may provide evidence, but it's not the kind of evidence you want. On the other hand, research isn't one size fits all. Though there are research standards that ensure valid and reliable takeaways regardless of scope and technique, some of our most impactful (and enjoyable) projects have presented unique communication needs and constraints, calling for creative solutions. Your timeline may not allow for an extended OMB review, but you likely can come to answers both the scientist and the communicator will feel good about by exploring alternatives together. Research executed correctly is an invaluable facilitator, not a hindrance.
How you say (and show) it matters.
You've heard people say the data "speaks for itself," but that's not true with most audiences. One of my favorite presentations focused on data visualization and another spoke to the interpretability of various presentation formats (e.g., percentages versus frequencies). The key takeaway for both was this: when it comes to influencing behavior, data presentation matters. In our work, we've certainly had really exciting data fall flat on our audience until we've brought in our graphic designer. And, one of the great success stories from the conference was the intersection of art and medicine. It's not about why we think the science is exciting or helpful; it's about how each audience can use the information to accomplish its goals.
The bottom line is everyone wins - especially our audiences - when we allow the tension between scientists and communicators to not only exist but to bring us to a collaborative ground that's reliable and creative. Rigorous and applied. By our powers combined…