Things that stop academics writing about their research for a public audience
Ok, I know you’re thinking time. But I’m not going to talk about time.
‘Time to do research’ is at the top of every academic’s wish list. But I can’t help you with that.
This piece is about the other things that stop you telling non-researchers what you know.
Think about it- when was the last time you communicated some of what you know about to someone who wasn’t your students, or other researchers?
Here are some things that might be stopping you, and a bit of me trying to convince you otherwise…
1. You are waiting to be invited.
Here’s the thing. The people who ‘get invited’ to do things have spent years and years putting themselves forward first. Nominating themselves for awards, reaching out to media outlets to get their story published, meeting people and creating a strong network. I used to think that the ‘famous’ researchers were doing the best work and so someone plucked them out of their lecture hall or office and put them on a stage.
I now know that every famous ‘Dr’ has a strategist, agent, business coach, and has spent years climbing up the ranks. Rosemary Stanton’s husband was her full-time publicist. If you were not born in Australia in the 80’s/interested in nutrition this might not mean anything to you- but for me this knowledge was BIG NEWS. Someone was seeking out the opportunities, getting her to be the comment in every newspaper article, helping her get book contracts. Think of the most ‘famous’ researcher you know. I am sure that they did not sit around waiting to be invited to talk about their work.
You need to put yourself forward for opportunities.
2. It's not a big name/ fancy publication- don’t you know how many degrees I have?
Here’s some news you might not like very much… people outside of academia don’t care about your citations, your H-index, or how many grant dollars you have. What they care about is that you can explain what you know to them in ways that they can understand. But this doesn’t come naturally when you’ve been beaten into academic writing style by several supervisors and many, many ‘reviewer 2’s.
Your first attempt at this might not be the best science communication article ever written. That’s ok. It doesn’t have to be. It's like the first pancake- it’s never quite right but you have to get it out of the way to get to the good ones. Just like you can’t go straight from your PhD to publishing in Nature, you can’t go from not writing anything for a lay audience to being invited to write a paid piece for the leading news outlets or the sort of media that you access and look up to.
Not everyone can start with the New York Times. You need to start with articles in smaller publications, and appearing on smaller podcasts - even if you've never heard of them. This will enable you to hone your skills, clarify your message, and have a few first tries that aren’t amazing in order to progress to the big, fancy, paid opportunities you might want.
3. Someone else is more of an expert than me on that particular topic.
Oh imposter syndrome, old friend, we know you well. The hierarchies of academia and universities almost feel like they reinforce the idea that you shouldn’t do anything unless you are the one with the most publications and grant funding to your name. I’m here to try to convince you otherwise.
First, there are things that you know that the world needs to know too. Other people might have a higher H-index, but they might not have the skills that you have in actually applying that knowledge to real life, and in communicating that research in real ways. Other people might not have had the same lived experience that allows you to connect with or relate to certain audiences.
There is something special about the way you can articulate things that the person-receiving-all-of-the-research-awards can’t. Sometimes being newer to a certain topic can help you to transform the knowledge into things that people with deep expertise can’t. You can connect it to other things that you know, relate it to real-life situations.
The ‘more expert’ person might not ever get around to stepping outside of their office to talk about this. You can choose to be the person who does- and get good at it. Whatever it is you want to write about – just go for it.
4. It’s been done before.
So you’ve seen one of your colleagues on TV or a Google news alert comes through with an article on exactly the sort of thing you were going to write… and you immediately strike ‘Write article for newspaper’ off your list… We are so used to having to be the first in our fields to do something that we forget that, in the outside world, there are hundreds of people writing about the exact same thing, doing the same thing, without anyone having to be first…
But here's the thing- there are nearly 8 Billion people in the world, who all experience different problems, in different ways. More than enough people for you to write something, and the ‘more expert’ person, or your colleague to write something.
News cycles are short. The biggest news outlets, magazines, and big names media only reach a few million people at best. There are still plenty of people who need to hear from you, and to hear the unique perspective you can put on things.
5. You think you need to say something new all of the time.
In University ‘media training’ the impression I got was that they thought we should just send out a press release every time a new publication was about to come out. That is one way to start writing or getting your work out there, but it’s not the only way. And if you’re anything like me, you are so tired of that paper by the time it’s been bleeding tracked changes from your colleagues, and critiqued to death by reviewers. The whole process kind of makes you start to think that what you did wasn’t that good and you shouldn’t even try to submit a publication about it… and that’s not the feeling that really makes you feel like going on TV/radio to talk about your innovation.
But there is so much- even in the lit review of that paper- that people outside of academic might not know or understand, and so much that they could learn from you, apply in their work or personal life, and feel good or do better in the world because of it.
Also- if you access enough of their work, you will notice that the big thought leaders say the same things over and over, in different ways, in different articles. They have honed their message and they can write the same things, make the same key points, use the same stories and examples, because they are writing or speaking to different audiences. Over time, you will figure out the sort of topics that people want you to write about. There's no harm in pitching a similar piece over and over to different outlets.
So that’s 5. Are you convinced yet?
As I was writing this, I realised that this was what I needed to hear 6 or 7 years ago. I had all of these thoughts. I was held back by my own limiting beliefs, lack of time, and misinformation about how the whole writing thing worked outside of academia.
This is what I needed to hear.
I hope it's what you needed to hear too...
Would you like your first opportunity?
Body image, health and wellbeing researchers can write for The Embrace Hub!
This new portal for resources aimed at young people, parents, teachers, and community leaders (like sports coaches, youth leaders) is accepting pitches for blog articles- around 1000 words on a topic that you know about, and that our audience wants to hear about!
Sign up here for more information, or email us your pitch! firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Zali Yager is a Body Image Expert, Executive Director of the Body Confident Collective, and Honorary Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University. Dr Yager is an internationally recognised expert in the body image space, known for figuring out 'what works' to build positive body image in school and community settings. Zali has a Health and Physical Education background, and has conducted most of her research in the health psychology and health promotion fields.
After 15 years doing this research in academia, Zali realised that all of that research wasn't actually reaching the people who could got frustrated by the fact that this work never got out to the people who could use it...and so the Body Confident Collective was born to do just that. You can read more about Zali's story here...
BCC is a social enterprise and health promotion charity on a mission to bring experts, clinicians, and ambassadors together to educate and advocate for more positive body image, and to create more supportive environments that build body confidence (and if you're reading this, we're guessing you are one of these people!)
Follow along at:
www.instagram.com/bodyconfidentcollective or @bodyconfidentcollective
www.instagram.com/drzaliyager or @drzaliyager
and connect on LinkedIN