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For people to understand you, you must first understand them

Each year, Spark decides on a topic that we think is really important to innovation in social research and we find the most amazing thinkers and doers we can, from all over the world, to offer related workshops. Learn more about our the relevance of research and how it can be effectively translated to the public in this article.

Mar 01, 2021

Each year, Spark decides on a topic that we think is really important to innovation in social research and we find the most amazing thinkers and doers we can, from all over the world, to offer related workshops.  In 2020-2021, our topic is Relevance and how research can be effectively translated to be meaningful in the public sphere.  

Brian Southwell joined us in November 2020.  He is senior director of the Science and the Public Sphere Program at RTI International and teaches at both Duke University and the University of North Carolina. He actively works to increase the public’s understanding of science through a wide variety of ventures including a radio show and podcast called “The Measure of Everyday Life: Stories from Social Science.”  Check it out on your podcatcher of choice.  You will be glad you did.


Image of Dr. Brian Southwell

Southwell emphasized that researchers need to understand something about the environment in which they live, and what their audience’s preconceived ideas are about their research. Researchers can play a role in countering misperceptions and misinformation about their field.

As he says, “Audiences aren’t blank slates. Existing mental models matter. And the existing information environment matters.”

He asks: “What is the information environment?”

The audience may simply not have the background information to understand what academics are actually doing. Before communicating your research, it is a good to try to find out what people actually think about the issue you’re exploring.  What are their preconceived notions and ideas about your work? What do people think of the people you work with as part of your research?  How and from who do they take in information about this topic?

Southwell has had a lot of experience testing how people understand issues and then countering misconceptions through his work. When assessing public understanding of Zika virus in the middle of the pandemic in Guatemala, he learned that most people, extremely used to mosquito-borne diseases, knew Zika was mosquito-borne, and so thought of it as just another mosquito-borne disease.  What was missing from many people’s idea of the virus was that it could be sexually transmitted. It’s not that that was not previously communicated by public health.  It was.  It’s that it didn’t stick in people’s brains because it wasn’t part of their existing mental models.  The recognition that the information wasn’t getting through allowed them to change the campaigns.  


When it comes to talking to the media, he has several specific recommendations for researchers:

  • do your homework. Explore the existing public discourse on the issue and ask a range of people, listening closely, how they understand the topic. 
  • outline the main message of your research into bullet points.
  • translate your key ideas into a couple of key headlines to help the journalists and ensure they get the message right
  • “Use your own voice.” When talking about your research, it can be very compelling to use specific examples by telling anecdotes or stories. People want to know about you and they love stories of discovery so making that part of your narrative can make it much more compelling. 
  • when telling stories, be passionate and interested in what you are talking about.
  • avoid rambling on.

If you are intending to share your research with the public, the Spark team is happy to help you develop your communication strategy.  Sign up for a research consultation to discuss it. 


To watch Brian Southwell's workshops, refer to these links below.

Brian Southwell, Part I:

Brian Southwell, Part II: