How to make sure people care about your research

No-one cares about your research. Particularly if it’s your PhD (or any other kind of doctorate). In fact if someone knows it’s the latter, or you mention it, they probably care less, or at least have alarm bells ringing that you’re about to launch into a prolonged account of your scholarship woes, the fact your supervisor hasn’t replied to any emails for 17 hours now, the horrible ethics committee, and the impossibility of writing only 100,000 words when it’s taken you 7 years and you’ve just got so much to say…

Even more of concern is the journal reviewer, or assessor of your grant proposal who is put off and frustrated before they’ve finished reading the first paragraph.

Fear not, for help is at hand! Fortunately, there is a really easy and effective way to avoid all these problems. Admittedly, this assumes your research does actually matter in some way, in the sense that it connects with something wider and non-trivial.

My solution will cost you nothing: no hard currency, no bitcoins, and no sleepless nights. Probably not even any extra words. In fact you may end up telling and selling the story of your research in fewer words than before! All it takes is a bit of trust, and a few minutes of your time.

My solution is this: when introducing your research, use a sequence that follows a ‘so’ logic rather than a ‘why?’ logic. This may well involve reversing the order of your ideas and sentences. If so, rejoice! – because this means you’ve already had all the right ideas, made all the right connections. You just need to turn it all upside down.

So what on earth is a ‘so’ logic, or a ‘why?’ logic, and why do these matter?

A ‘why’ logic is based on a sequence of sentences where each sentence is followed by one that explains the first. Example:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

This looks great, right? It’s clear, follows a nice logical order, and explains to the reader why your research is important. I’ll admit, it’s not bad. Just I think it could be better. What’s really going on in the sequence above is an unwritten conversation with the reader. Let’s look at it again, this time with the silent responses inserted:

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[So what?]

This is important because employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yeah. And? Why should I care about that?]

This matters because generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Oh! Now I get it!]

Look at it from the reader’s point of view. You first sentence left them unconvinced, and probably rang all the alarm bells of dread, foreboding the terrors I outlined at the beginning of this post. Only after pushing you twice for more information, are they rewarded with something that they actually ‘get’, and might even care about. To them your research, in only three sentences, has been an uphill slog, full of doubt, experienced as some kind of puzzle that leaves them guessing. After each sentence they are left asking themselves: “why?”. This is the reason I call this a ‘why?’ logic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can swap ‘why?’ for ‘so’. And we barely have to change a word. In fact we delete quite a few!

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

In this logic, you start with the idea that the reader really ‘got’ in the first scenario. The thing that matters most universally, directly and immediately to your readers. The kind of thing that they will accept as obvious, perhaps even unquestionable. There’s nothing wrong with showing a reader that you are both on the same wavelength. Take a shared assumption about something that you know to be a common concern. Something you don’t have to convince them to care about. Exploit what’s already there between you!

Then simply follow up with a sentence that leads from that towards your research, in a gradually narrowing down. What’s happening this time, is something more like this:

Generic skills are known to be crucial to successful business innovation.

[Absolutely! You sound like a sensible sort of person who knows what I care about. I’m curious. Tell me more].

Employers increasingly look for generic skills in recruiting new staff, and repeatedly report shortcomings among graduates.

[Yes. That makes sense.]

My research is about improving generic skills of university graduates.

[Seriously?! Wow! That’s wonderful! It’s just what we need. And it sounds very focused too. Tell me all about it in intricate detail!]

At each step you carry the reader with you, and one sentence follows on from the next exploiting this. Sentence 1 [brilliant!] so…. sentence 2 [amazeballs!] so… sentence 3 [no way! Where’s that Novel prize nomination form?]

That’s it. It may take you more than 3 sentences (hopefully not too many more, though).

Give it a try. I dare you. What have you got to lose?

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the influence of Martyn Hammersley’s framework for reading ethnographic research (see my video and podcast), Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s miraculous ‘tiny texts’ approach to writing abstracts, the group of UTS Doctor of Education students based in Hong Kong, and Lee Williamson from UTS’ Research Office. Without you all this would never have come to fruition.come to fruition.

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