Why you should write about your research for a public audience
Papers, students, data, committees- all of the things.
I get it- you are busy. There is a lot to do…
So why should you write about your research for a public audience?? There doesn't seem to be any immediate payoff.
I'm here to convince you otherwise. Every time I have written a blog entry, or done a talk, appeared as a guest on a podcast, or put myself out there and left university walls, a few things happen that make me realise that it was actually worthwhile. I’m sharing these with you in case it helps give you the little push that you need…
1. I get better at it. Academics are trained to write for other academics. Writing up your research in a journal is some of the hardest, most technical writing you can do. And it is important. But the more you try to step back and apply what you know to the people outside of science, it gets easier, and you get better at it. You can develop this skill alongside your academic writing.
2. It feels like pure freedom. I’m not sure if you noticed, but in the previous dot point, I started a sentence with ‘and’. And I started a sentence with ‘but’. There are less rules when you are writing for a non-academic audience. This freedom in terms of being able to communicate things in different ways feels so good for those of us who are creative and don’t get an outlet for this in much of our academic work. Or maybe it's just me who gets joy from occasionally starting a sentence with 'and', 'but', and 'or'...
3. It helps people. The whole reason why I started to do research, and pursued academia was because I wanted to help people. I wanted to figure out the programs, resources, and approaches to improving body image that would actually help people feel better. But when I was talking about what I do to a guy on the bus and he said “my wife is really struggling with her body image after having our baby- do you have anything that I can give her?” I was like ‘well I have a systematic review that’s nearly finished’… No, I didn’t say that, but I did come home, sit down, and write an article aimed at women that summarised a lot of what I already knew on the topic (that systematic review is STILL not finished)!
4. It gives you a ‘quick win’. Speaking of systematic reviews not finished… research is S.L.O.W. I have 2 systematic reviews still 'in progress', one is 5 years old, one is 9- I introduce them like they are my children- because they are as old as my children! My colleagues and I have a paper that has been sitting with a journal office for 5 months now. 5 months to get one person to review it! The research on burnout (summarised and made palatable by one of my favourite knowledge translators, Adam Grant) shows that you need to have ‘quick wins’- daily achievements that make you feel good about what you are doing at work- and your research publications are not going to do this for you…
5. It’s good for your career. Every time I’ve gone on a podcast, done a talk, or written a piece for a public audience, it has led to something else. Every time. You never know who is in that audience. You never know who will read that piece. The more who people hear about what you do, and the more that they see you doing it, the more that they see you as an expert on that topic. They can see how you, and what you know, are relevant to their context. They start to think ‘this person knows what they are talking about, I wonder if they will come on my podcast/write for my newspaper/magazine/speak to my employees. Your public profile increases. Word gets out. And then, the sorts of things that you are wanting start coming to you. Offers for paid talks, consulting dollars to do more research. Partnerships with companies. And all of this can be quantified as impact- and as universities get more interested in this, you can start to add your reach and impact stats to your CV, annual review, job and promotion applications.
6. It helps your research. Some of the biggest ‘breakthroughs’ I’ve had in my understanding of my own field have come from talking about my work with people who know nothing about it. They ask the sort of questions that hurt your brain at first, and you might not be able to answer them straight away, but over time, this can lead in some really incredible research directions too. New ideas for grants. New ways of communicating the context of the research in your lit review. An actual understanding of the implications of your work for your discussion section. True knowledge translation goes two ways. Yes, we need to get what we know out to the world, but also, we need to take the world’s problems back into universities and figure out what we can do about them.
So yes, you do need to step outside of your comfort zone. But you might find that it’s kind of fun out there… it can feel really good. You feel good when you send off that 1000 word article that took you an hour to pull together. The podcast host thanks you for all of the important work you are doing. Editors are grateful for your contribution. People are reading your work. The crowd applauds at the end of your talk. The podcast episode hits 10,000 downloads… You remember why you started to do all of this work in the first place.
All of the things that don’t happen regularly in academia can happen when you start writing for a public audience.
And some of us need to feel good about what we are doing, and remember why we are doing it right now. When we are tired and overwhelmed, and burning (or burnt) out.
So don’t do it for me… don’t do it for them. Do it for you.
And here’s your first opportunity…
We’re in the process of putting together a new website, all about promoting positive body image, with resources for young people (9-12 years, 13+ years), parents, teachers, and community leaders (like sports coaches, people who run youth group, after school programs etc). The resources will always be free, and they will be promoted worldwide (though only in English at this point- sorry!). The Body Confident Collective are partnering with the Body Image Movement to create these resources, and this website, to ensure that everything is as evidence-informed as it can be given the lack of funding to generate said evidence. The website, the Embrace Hub, will launch alongside the ‘Embrace Kids’ film in August, and the opportunity for reach is high given the nature of the partnerships and publicity that will surround the film.
If you know things about body image, moving your body, fuelling your body, and being kind to yourself that you think young people, parents, teachers, and community leaders might want to know, you can write a 1000-word piece for the Embrace Hub. If you want to be one of the first to do this, you can enter the Body Confident Collective ‘write about your research’ challenge… Enter your email address here for more details, inspiration and support to help you do this.
The Bio Bit
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. Zali 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.
Ok, now that's over, surly I don't need to continue writing about myself in 3rd person...
After 15 years doing this research in academia, I 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.
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, I'm 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