How to Write a Research Impact Story that Speaks to the Right Audience

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Knowledge translation is playing an increasingly visible role in driving innovation, with the Research Impact Story emerging as a recognizable genre used by funding organizations, research institutes, and start-ups.

Typically, the story begins something like this:

Meet our Researcher of the Month, Dr. Letitia Song.

Dr. Song grew up in the small town of Cambridge, Ontario, where her family had settled upon immigrating from Vietnam. When Dr. Song’s mother, Lila, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of muscular dystrophy (MD) at age 37, the future medical researcher knew she had found her life’s work…

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

This opening should make for a catchy blog article, newsletter item, or social media post, but its ability to provide an effective “hook” depends on the audience you’re trying to reach.  

Whose attention is the story trying to catch? From what we’ve seen so far, I’d infer that the target audience consists of:

  • Song and her family
  • Medical researchers
  • Citizens of Cambridge, Ontario,
  • Vietnamese immigrants

But I’m guessing that the intended audience—the audience the writer truly wants to attract and impact—is a more powerful group. The story probably aims to influence people other than researchers, people from Dr. Song’s home town, and people who share her cultural heritage.

If your target audience includes policy makers, funding organizations, or media outlets, you may want to rethink the way you’re crafting your Research Impact Stories to appeal to your readers.

Why the Researcher May Not Make the Best Hero  

Like Olympic athletes, researchers carry the torch of human potential to new heights. Their achievements make them motivational figures, larger-than-life heroes for ordinary mortals to admire and emulate.

Admiration, however, doesn’t necessarily elicit stakeholder support, which is an important goal for most Research Impact Stories. When someone is elevated on a pedestal, it can be challenging for us to see them in the position of needing our help.

Let’s return to our example, the story about Dr. Song and her discovery. Here is how that narrative might unfold if it followed the typical structure:

After earning her medical degree at McMaster University, Song specialized in neuromuscular diseases at Oxford and practiced at the London Hospital for seven years. During this time, she also founded a research lab, where she and her team identified a genetic mutation related to facioscapulohumeral MD, a form of the disease that primarily affects the face, shoulders, and hips.

Two years ago, Song decided to return home to Ontario and join the faculty at Western University. Through a grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Ontario, she has been able to continue the research she started in the UK and take it to the next level.

Clearly, Song is a remarkable woman who’s had a remarkable career, but her biography may not grab the attention of funders and policy makers. When you’re describing a journey of scientific discovery, the destination is more important than the travelogue. Outside the research community, people want to hear about the impact, not the road to impact.

Focusing on Song’s bio may also backfire in another way. Stressing the researcher’s brilliance, rather than the outcome of that brilliance, can it hard for mere mortals to relate to the subject of your story.

Be Careful How you Foster Identification

Kenneth Burke’s theory of persuasion helps us understand this problem or relatability. In the 1950s, Burke expanded on classical models of rhetoric (the study of the art of persuasion) to introduce a new concept: identification.

In Burke’s view, identification forms the essence of persuasion. We’re moved to adopt a writer’s ideas when we’re drawn into sharing the perspective of the main character. For Burke, persuasion works through the power of a hero with whom we feel as one.

In the case of a research impact story, if the researcher isn’t that relatable hero, who is?

To answer that, try delving into the last of the journalist’s 5Ws: why. In a typical research impact story, structured with the researcher as the hero, the clue often appears at the end of the narrative.

Here, for example, is how our fictional impact story about Dr. Song’s work might conclude:

Song has now joined the Medical Incubator to launch a startup, Lila Genomics, which is developing precision medicine solutions for MD and other neuromuscular disorders.

“With her joyful attitude and her will to live, my mom continually inspires me,” says Song. “I named my company after her because I want to prevent others from suffering as she has.”

Uncovering the personal passion driving the research often reveals a second hero, a figure with whom more stakeholders can identify: the beneficiary of the science.

In this case, that beneficiary is Song’s mother, Lila, whose name appears in the name of the startup that has evolved from the research. Just as Lila serves as a figurehead for the company, she can serve as the hero for the research impact story. With a few changes to the story structure, Dr. Song’s story can become Lila’s story, and by extension the story of any patient battling MD.

In many cases, it makes more sense to foster identification with Lila rather than with her superstar daughter. If you want your research story to appeal to a broad public, for instance, or to people without direct research experience, then Lila may be the character in which you want your audience to see themselves reflected. Stakeholders and policymakers want to see the impact of your research, not necessarily the person who made the impact.

Dr. Song may shine with the brilliance of a classical hero, but Lila appeals to us through her humility and her frailty. Few of us will attain the peak experience of discovering a new gene, but almost all of us can identify with the feelings of helplessness that come from experiencing illness. Lila reminds us how vulnerable we all are and appeals to our common humanity. That may not seem like glamorous story material, but it’s emotionally powerful stuff—and emotion is key to persuasive writing.

Bring Out the Story-Within-the-Story

In our fictional article, Lila holds the key to the story-within-the-story. When you’re writing a Research Impact Story, your job is to find that hidden narrative. Take the researcher’s journey, as heroic as it is, as the starting point, not the destination.

For example, if we were to revise our pretend story, we might turn the ending into the beginning. The opening would then read something like this:

As a young teenager, Dr. Letitia Song taught herself how to cook family meals by borrowing Canadian Living cookbooks from the small-town library in Cambridge, Ontario. Her mother, Lila, loved to cook but was partially paralyzed by muscular dystrophy (MD).

As her mother tried treatment after treatment but continued to lose control of her muscles, Song became a confident teenaged chef. She also became determined to spend her life searching for a cure for MD….

The article could then describe what it’s like to live with MD, drawing us further into Lila’s lived experience. From there, it could connect Dr. Song’s compassion for her mother with the birth of her research passion and take us into an overview of her research and her breakthrough findings.

This more impactful story would elicit in the reader feelings of empathy, curiosity, and hope. It would still position Dr. Song as a key figure in the drama, but the core of the story would become Lila’s heroic struggle to live a life of dignity and meaning while coping with MD.

The second version has more heart and fosters greater feelings of identification. Despite deviating from the standard structure for a Research Impact Story, the effect it has is more memorable and more persuasive than a story that centers the researcher.

Thematically, the first version of Song’s research story focuses on a scientific challenge that interests a small audience and operates primarily at the level of intellect. In contrast, the alternative version speaks to an issue with universal relevance and creates emotional appeal. Whether or not we have direct experience with MD, we can all relate to the existential challenge of trying to live a meaningful life while dealing with physical vulnerability.

When the “facts” of a research story appear before us, as knowledge translators, we get to choose how to arrange those elements. Depending on how we decide to emphasize them, details of plot, setting, and character can take on different shapes and create different meaning. That’s the power of storytelling. It doesn’t merely transmit knowledge; it transforms it.

That power deserves to be taken seriously. That’s one reason, perhaps, that research stories have hardened into a routine form. On the surface, sticking with the Researcher as Hero narrative can look like the surest way to preserve accuracy.

But following a routine structure is not the only way to convey the potential of research to change lives. When we take time to uncover the story-within-the-story, we find beneath the science deep human truths that resonate with stakeholders personally and get them excited about the discovery.

Avoiding The “Convenience Sample” Approach

It’s true that most readers are drawn to stories featuring people (and to images of human faces), but  the most obvious person in your Research Impact Story may not be the character your audience will identify with the most strongly.

Crafting a Research Impact Story around the researcher makes for easy writing. The plot comes ready-formed: researcher sets out mission, researcher meets and overcomes obstacles, researcher achieves praiseworthy results and emerges as a conquering hero. In theory, this is the kind of quest narrative that should entice and inspire readers. In practice, however, it’s unlikely to produce the kind of impact the writer intends because it miscasts the hero.

The most visible person in the research story may not be, for the purposes of reaching audiences with power, the most important character. Latching on too quickly to the researcher as your protagonist is the equivalent of grabbing a “convenience sample” for a quantitative study.

Why do so many studies in the social sciences use university students as their subjects? Because it’s easy for a professor to recruit participants from their classes. Convenience always comes with a cost, though. Findings based on a group of emerging adults in a campus environment may not be applicable to a more diverse population.

In the same way, knowledge translators often recruit the hero of a Research Impact Story from the most accessible source—the researcher. Especially when you’re writing under a tight deadline, the easiest way to generate content is to conduct a short interview with the researcher and grab a quick chronology of their research activities. Even a novice interviewer can follow a journalistic model and quickly tease out the who, what, when, where, and why (the 5Ws) of the research story on short notice.

Such an approach will yield a cohesive, perhaps even dramatic, story, but as with a study based on a convenience sample, the results may not speak to people outside a narrow group.

If your aim is to reach an audience outside the research community, then you’ll have to dig beneath the surface of the researcher’s accomplishments to find the story that will truly influence influencers and drive change. 


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