Five tips for scholars who want to reach a broader audience

As misinformation circulates widely in our social networks and media, many people are hungry for truthful, thoughtful information about our world. Recognizing the need to bring critical and evidence-based knowledge to public conversations, many scholars are recognizing that they may have a special role to play by sharing their research more broadly with the public. As historians Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi wrote recently, the public is thirsty for scholarly insights on the key problems we are facing today, including racism, sexism, Islamophobia, incarceration, and deportations. Scholars can defend the truth and “replenish the minds of the nation.” But how can scholars, who are used to writing for specialized audiences, make sure their ideas connect with a broader audience?

I recently talked to scholars who are eager to do just that at a workshop at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia co-hosted by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. We talked not only about nuts and bolts ways to reach the public (such as op-eds, blogs, podcasts, the new Washington Post Made By History section, and interviews) but about how to frame messages so that they are heard. Here are five tips from communications research for scholars who want to inform the public and shape the conversation.

Tip #1: Consider how people already think about a topic.

Although professors may imagine at the beginning of each class that their students are vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, that isn’t actually the case. People are not blank slates. Instead, people already have existing ways of seeing the world and their own ideas about politics, history, and current events. Research shows that when people hear new information that conflicts with what they already understand, they tend to reject the information that doesn’t fit.

If you want to share information in a way that convinces people, you have to understand their world view. The Frameworks Institute, a great communications research resource for scholars and advocates, undergoes a process of “mapping the swamp” of people’s existing thinking on various issues. (Check out their studies here.) What are the cultural models that already exist to frame an issue? What ways of thinking are harmful, and what ideas are already out there that you can build upon? Scholars should know that the audiences they seek to reach already have existing frames and models for understanding the world.

Tip #2: Do not myth-bust.

Often scholars enter a public debate to correct the record when politicians and others are getting it wrong. They have a unique role to play here, as scholarly work is all about marshaling (carefully, painstakingly collected) evidence to support arguments. But research makes it clear that debunking myths doesn’t work. Repeating misinformation makes people more likely to believe it is true, and may reinforce both misinformation and the worldview it occupies, doing far more harm than good.  

Instead of repeating a myth or a lie, focus on the truth you want to tell, and tell an affirmative story. When you do, support your argument with a few excellent points rather than all of your evidence: less can be more. 

Tip #3: Frame facts using values.

If people already have strongly held ideas about the world, and don’t listen when presented with the truth, is there any hope? There is! The key to reaching people and changing the conversation is to frame your information in terms of values. As the Opportunity Agenda shows in its recommended communication structure, leading with values creates a meaningful connection with your audience.  

Think about what values will resonate with your audience and what values you share. At the American Friends Service Committee, we conducted research to determine what messages would move our audiences to action to counter Islamophobia in our communities. We found that progressive audiences responded well to messages that framed Islamophobia as a human rights issue, by opening a conversation this way: “We all benefit when we uphold the dignity and worth of all people.” Another message focused on peace and safety as a shared value resonated with more moderate audiences: “All of us deserve to feel safe from hatred and to live and pray in peace.” After opening with a statement of shared values, make your argument and support it with facts.

For more on values framing check out the Opportunity Agenda’s toolkit for crafting effective communications, as well as the work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff

Tip #4: Build empathy.

Communications research shows that effective advocacy on many issues depends upon building empathy. As the Frameworks Institute shows in its messaging toolkit on immigration policy, for example, when people think of immigrants as a group distinct from them, they tend to support more punitive policies. When people are fearful of the unknown and when they lack empathy for people they perceive to be unlike them, they may support or accept cruel and inhumane policies and treatment of other people. Building support for more humane policies requires broadening people’s sense of our shared humanity.

Humanities scholars can help build empathy. Humanities research is focused on studying and being immersed in people different from ourselves in our work, and it recognizes and articulates the ways that social orders shape understanding of our communities. And as the historian Paul Kramer put it in a recent article imploring historians to build empathy, good scholars and empathic people also share key traits: “open-ended curiosity about the lives of others, careful reading, a sense of context, critical self-awareness, attention to the ways our times live in us, and vice versa.” Draw on these traits when writing for the public.

Tip #5: Offer solutions.

Although most scholars are not practicing policymakers and are not always asked for concrete solutions, when they are writing for a popular audience they must point to a way forward. Too often, scholarly work uncovers and explicates a problem, offering a rigorous critique but no solution. But stopping with a critique closes minds and makes people feel hopeless, particularly when a problem is big and deep. Crisis fatigue and fatalism can hinder understanding and progress.

To shape the public conversation and change minds, offer solutions or actions people can take to act on what you’ve told them. What do you want people to do when they’ve finished reading your op-ed or blog post or listening to your podcast? What can your research or expertise do to inform a conversation, and how does your contribution help someone think about an issue differently? Even if your critique addresses a very deep problem that won’t be solved soon, what would a better world look like?