Is the False Premise of Multiple Priorities Sabotaging Your Research Communication?

Research communication

How do you visualize your writing time in your schedule? Do you see it as fixed or flexible, optional or mandatory? 

I have a tendency to see mine as if it were endlessly stretchable within a fixed 24-hour period. Seeing time like this is a challenge I’ve struggled with my entire life, and I have a shelf of time management books to prove it.

In my mind, time functions as some kind of innovative material, a substance so elastic that you can use it to create a container with infinite capacity. No matter the original size of the container, its sides can stretch and stretch to fit whatever you put in it. And here’s the really amazing part: as it stretches, the container takes up no more space than it did in its original shape. New priorities can be added to it at any point, and it never seems to overflow. 

Of course, this is a delusion. I know there’s some incredible work going on in quantum physics that’s challenging our sense of time and space, but certain laws remain ineluctable. When something expands into a space, it must displace what’s already there. This is especially true of tasks in a calendar.

Over-stuffing your calendar can lead to confusing your high-priority tasks. It can also clutter your messaging, and that will negatively impact your funding opportunities and your ability to connect with collaborators outside your research community. These problems – seemingly unrelated – actually come from the same root cause: confusion over priorities.

Multiple “Priorities” are Tanking Your Productivity  

What does “priority” mean to you? In my distorted approach to time management, I tend to think of a priority as just one of several pressing issues. That’s why I’ve never been able to work with the famous Eisenhower matrix (popularized by Stephen Covey as the four quadrants). When I look at my to-do list or my calendar, everything looks urgent to me. I have trouble identifying the items that take precedence over the other myriad of tasks on my list. I find it hard to create a hierarchy of importance, with just one “number one” at the top.

This is a symptom of mindset. We cannot have a “list of priorities,” In truth, we can have only one priority at a time. A priority isn’t just one of a handful of important things. It’s THE most important thing. Other tasks may be urgent, but not every task is a priority. 

In any given day, my task list includes at least a few mission-critical items. But only one of them is the most critical, the true priority in that day. And, as I’m slowly learning, once I get focused on that one task, the rest of my to-do’s somehow all fall into line. I stop trying to over-expand my calendar and zero in on what I can realistically do within the number of hours available to me. 

Picking a priority for the day requires a ruthlessness that is new to me—but only in the context of my calendar. As a writer, I learned long ago that it’s impossible to produce a clear, cogent document unless you choose one main, controlling idea and refuse all distractions.

Ruthless Focus Gets Stakeholder Buy-In

To move your research forward, into the world outside the lab or library, you need to decide not just what you will do but also what you WON’T do. Then you need to stick to that decision even in the face of distraction and scrutiny. 

Your stakeholders, including the funders to whom you report, will thank you for the improved clarity you bring to the way you communicate with them. Identifying one main message for each communication product you develop will make it easier for them to grasp your meaning and decide how to respond to your recommendations.

A delusional approach to writing, like my delusional approach to time management, tells us a document can target multiple priorities. Many clients come to me believing that they can address, in a single piece of writing, all the potential needs and interests a diverse audience might have. They might assume, for instance, that with one multi-purpose report, they can gain the support of a government official, a Chief Nursing Officer, and a patient advocacy group.  

But here’s the harsh reality: in most situations, you have just seconds to capture an audience’s attention. You can do that only by focusing on a single core message that aligns with what matters to them. You have to identify who your audience is and prioritize them in your writing, tailoring the details and trimming away the excess. What matters to the government official probably isn’t the concern that’s top of mind for the patient advocates or the CNO. 

Just Say No to the Tangential

When you’re crafting a piece of writing—whether that’s an email, a report, a grant application, or a research paper—you must practice strategic refusal. Don’t make the mistake I make with my calendar. Don’t pretend the writing space you have can expand endlessly to squeeze in more data and more ideas so as to appeal to everyone you want to reach.

It's easy to fall into the trap of spending another hour, or adding another page, thinking that if you just “cover all the bases” you’ll get all your stakeholders on board. But your readers have limited capacity to take in any information that’s not immediately relevant to them. They need to understand you and buy in quickly. A clear, singular priority is the way to achieve that result.

Persuasion is a game of ultimates. You must show your audience, as swiftly as you can, that their ultimate priority is your ultimate priority. And you must adhere to that priority with extreme dedication so you create a consistent, memorable message. 

Yes, getting ruthless about your focus might mean sacrificing some “interesting” content, content you might even consider valuable to the argument you’re making. But is that content truly central to your case, or is it a fascinating tangent? “Interesting” can kill clarity.

Consistent, crystal-clear focus, on the other hand, builds trust. It shows stakeholders that you care about the same things they care about, that you’re putting their concerns at the center of your vision. Such single-mindedness and gets people excited about your research findings and invested in working toward concrete outcomes.

Pick one key message for a document and own it. Otherwise, you’ll confuse your readers. As any salesperson will tell you, a confused customer doesn’t buy goods or services. Neither does a confused stakeholder buy into the potential of research findings. 

Clarity Shows you Care

Moment by moment, our brains take in far more information than they can ever store in long-term memory. Understanding this reality, and minimizing your audience’s “cognitive load”, helps you stand out from the crowd. 

Make it easy for your readers to recognize, file, and remember the information you’re presenting. Give them one impactful idea they can hold on to rather than three important-but-distracting ideas that will be difficult to sort and recall. By practicing strategic refusal, you’ll show consideration for your audience and make yourself memorable. As a result, you’ll be the person they think of the next time your field, research subject, or product is mentioned. 

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to sell an industry partner on the benefits of a new textile material your company has developed. That material can do many things. It is resistant to hospital infections, can stretch to twice its original size, last for 20 years, repel water, and the list goes on. 

If your client is a manufacturer of hospital bedding, then you should focus on the research demonstrating the fabric’s resistance to bacteria like MRSA or other forms of staph, llinking that property of the fabric to the manufacturing process and making it your main selling point. 

Sure, the durability and water resistance are interesting features, but they distract from the most aspects of your product that will appeal most strongly to your audience. In this case, you would decide NOT to mention these features. Nor would you emphasize the fabric’s aesthetic qualities, or its potential in the athletic wear market. Such details might “round out” the product description, but they would cause your target audience to tune out.

Narrowing Your Scope Amplifies Your Impact

If you’re anything like me, you may have trouble letting go of the fascinating subtopics that you have developed as part of your work. Choosing a single priority for your writing can feel like betraying the other (seemingly) urgent pieces of information you have to share. 

Translating research for lay audiences always involves a delicate balancing act. When I collaborate with researchers, in academia or industry, I’m vigilant about staying true to the complexity of the work. At the same time, I’m also on high alert to make sure that the language and visuals we use are clear and digestible for the people who will be consuming them.

So long as you’re trying to tell everyone in your audience everything about your research, finding the right balance is impossible. The key to success is to choose one priority at a time. Get buy-in with that message, and you’ll get the next conversation, which may give you the opportunity to take your audience deeper into your findings.

Prioritizing one core message doesn’t mean you’ll never mention the rest of the juicy content you have to share. It just means you’ll need to create the right opportunity to offer further detail to your audience in a way that will enable them to focus on it. 

If you focus on one priority message at a time, you’ll open the door to the chance to share additional messages and keep building credibility and trust. And trust, not information, is the currency of the collaborative relationships you need to move your research forward and drive change.


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!