Writing for a Lay Audience
Advice and ideas to support your communication to non-academic audiences.
Studying at university involves adjusting to the conventions of academic writing, a style that can often feel like a language of its own. But there will be times in your degree when you will be asked to write about your academic ideas for a lay audience (an audience of non-specialists). When you are used to presenting your ideas in an academic style, with a heavy emphasis on formality and technical language, this can be a challenging re-adjustment. But writing for non-specialist audiences is a skill that is becoming increasingly important in academic life.
This is reflected in the increasing use of the term research impact, a word you will hear often in academic life. According to the university’s impact team, research impact is ‘the change, influence or benefit that occurs outside academia from research.’ Impact is increasingly emphasised, because research funders, the government, and universities themselves expect researchers to demonstrate how their research benefits the wider community and society. There are several ways to achieve research impact:
- Dissemination - how researchers share the findings of their research with wider audiences and stakeholders (those with a special interest in that information, e.g. funders)
- Outreach - programmes extending higher education outside of the academy, e.g. Widening Participation schemes
- Knowledge Exchange - how researchers interact with and exchange information with users of that knowledge, e.g. through collaborations with businesses, charities, or government
- Public engagement - how universities engage the wider public with their research, e.g. through press releases and events like Festival of the Mind
Within any of these pathways to research impact, it is important to understand how to write for a lay audience. There are many ways we can disseminate the findings of our research, e.g. through using social media, videos and blog posts, writing press releases to share with the media, giving presentations at public events, or designing educational outreach activities. In an academic context, you might also be asked to write a ‘lay summary’ of your research, where alongside a normal academic abstract, you explain your research and its impact in plain language for a wider audience.
Whether you are using one of these methods, showcasing your undergraduate research to the general public through the SURE scheme, or explaining your PhD research in the pub through PubHD Sheffield, this resource contains advice on writing effectively for a lay audience. Writing for lay audiences enriches your academic writing by helping you to write clearly, creatively and engagingly, challenging you to take a step back from the finer details of your research and ask: ‘so what?’
When writing for non-specialists, it is important to reflect on who your audience is. Ask yourself the following questions:
Who is the writing likely to reach?
Do some research on the intended audience of your research. For example, if you are writing for a blog or local newspaper, do some research about the intended readership of the publication. How might knowledge of your audience impact the way you deliver the content? For example, if you are writing a talk to deliver to high schoolers, which aspects of your research are likely to be engaging and accessible for young people? If you are writing a blog post for a local website, which details might be of particular interest to a local audience? If you are writing to, or on behalf of, a stakeholder organisation, what are the values stated on their website?
Think about ways you might meet your audience where they are, by making your ideas relevant to them.
How much prior knowledge of the subject area is your audience likely to have?
How is your subject matter popularly understood in popular society and culture? Try to get outside of your own specialist understanding of the topic: think about how it is represented in the media, or ask a non-specialist friend to explain their understanding of the topic for you. Are there any popular misconceptions or preconceptions about this subject area, and do you need to acknowledge or challenge these? For example, think about the different meanings of any terminology you are using: what understandings, if any, are your audience likely to have of these terms?
The best way to factor in a range of prior knowledge and educational experiences in your audience is to write in the most accessible style possible (see below).
Why is your audience likely to be interested?
Try to get outside of your own academic interest in the subject area, and the arguments you have made in your essays as to why your topic is an appropriate matter for academic interest. Instead, try to think honestly about the ‘bigger picture’: what makes this research interesting for a wider audience?
Rather than assuming there is ready-made interest in your subject matter, it is up to you to prove why your research is worthy of the public’s attention. For example, is the research topical, based on an issue that is urgent/important, a matter of local interest, or controversial? Is the research uncovering something new that ought to be brought to light, or helping to break through an important misconception? What knowledge does it bring to your reader?
Is the subject matter potentially controversial for this audience?
Think about the social, cultural, and political sensitivities of your audience. Be mindful of whether your subject matter is likely to be contentious, and factor this into the way you write by handling issues with sensitivity. If you are making a controversial argument, can you anticipate any potential counter-arguments that might be made? How can you persuade the reader of your position?
When writing your article, make sure you are including the key information that will be necessary for your reader to understand the research undertaken. Try to think about the context that someone with no prior understanding of the subject area would need to make sense of your ideas. At the same time, try to think in terms of the ‘bigger picture’ by being concise and summative, omitting details that are only significant or of interest in an academic context. Where applicable, make sure to include the following key information:
- Who? Who is involved in the research, e.g. the university/stakeholders? Who does the research affect, and who benefits from the research?
- What? What is the research about? What information does your reader need to understand to help them make sense of the research? What information is particularly significant/important?
- Where? Are there any geographical limitations to the research undertaken that are worthy of note? Where did the research take place?
- When? When did the research take place? What time period does the research concern?
- Why? Why did the research take place? Why is the research important and of interest to your audience? What impact does it have for broader society and for understanding of the subject area?
- How? How was the research conducted? How did it come about and take place?
- So what? With all this information in mind, make sure you have answered the most important question of all: ‘so what?’ Why should your reader care?
The specific structure your writing will follow will depend on the particular format you are working within. See if you can find other examples of similar works for inspiration: for example, if you are writing a press release, you could look through the University’s news webpages. If you are writing a piece of science communication, you could look at articles in science magazines like the New Scientist for an idea of the order you might follow.
The key thing is to express your ideas in a clear and logical order. When you have finished writing, it might be helpful to ask a non-specialist friend to read through your work to check the clarity of your ideas and that you have provided enough contextual information to explain your research.
But however you express the ‘how, what, where, when, why and so what’ of your research, remember that first and last impressions are the most important. Therefore, you should make sure to write an effective introduction and conclusion:
- Use your introduction to clearly summarise the overall purpose of your research, and to make a case for why the research is of interest to the reader (‘so what?’) You could use a ‘hook’, an interesting opening sentence designed to draw the reader in and make them want to read on: for example, you could use a rhetorical sentence, an interesting/shocking statistic, a provocative quotation, or a description that reinforces the urgency or personal interest of the subject matter.
- Use your conclusion to reinforce any take home points you would like your reader to go away with. Make sure you have considered any implications your research has for what will happen going forward, e.g. its impact on popular understandings of the subject area. You can end with a ‘bang,’ or a sentence that ends the article on an interesting and memorable note. Remember that you can be more creative here than in your usual academic writing!
It is important to stick within any guidelines you have been given about the style and format you should follow: for example, if you are writing for a publication, follow any specified editorial guidelines. Like in any academic essay you write, you must also ensure that you take care to accurately and factually express your ideas, citing the sources of any ideas you bring in from elsewhere.
But while there may still be some rules to follow, remember that you are not writing in the style of a normal academic essay. Think about how you can adapt your writing style to a non-specialist audience by simplifying your communication style, making your ideas accessible, and communicating creatively:
In order to hold your reader’s attention, try to keep your writing as brief as possible, including the only key information only. Think of the ‘bigger picture’ and try not to get bogged down in unnecessary technical information that might be relevant for an academic essay, but boring for a lay readership. This may involve a process of drafting and re-drafting until you are confident that you have a succinct final product (a drafting and editing process may be a compulsory part of the process if you are submitting an article for publication).
Avoid the technical jargon you would use in your academic writing wherever possible: instead of using a technical term as shorthand, consider how you can explain the same concept using plain language. If it is necessary to use technical terminology, make sure to clearly define any terms used for your reader. Make sure the overall style of your writing is as clear and simplistic as possible, to avoid alienating your reader.
While you should always be appropriate and professional in your writing, remember that you will not be expected to follow the same expectations of formality that you would within an academic essay. So it is important to think creatively about how you can express the relevance and interest of your research for a non-academic audience. Where appropriate, are there any particularly humorous, fun, or emotional aspects of the research that might help to draw your reader into your project? This will stop your research from coming across as dry or lecture-like to your reader.
You may be used to academic conventions where the author minimises their role as much as possible, and does not directly acknowledge the audience. When writing for a lay audience, there is more scope to acknowledge your own role in the research: don’t be afraid to use the first-person ‘I’ and to write actively rather than passively, as this can be more engaging in a non-academic context.
You should also consider your audience in the way that you write: how can you create a dialogue with your audience, considering counter-arguments they might have to your content, and offering talking points for the reader to consider for themselves?
The main way you can test your success in achieving any of these points is to ask a variety of non-specialist friends and family members to check over your work for you. Ask for honest feedback on whether the ideas are clearly expressed and engaging enough to hold their interest. As you would for an academic assignment, leave enough time to go away from the article for a while and come back later with fresh eyes.
- Friends and family are an ideal test audience for this kind of writing! Make sure to ask for honest feedback on accessibility and engagement.
- Look for inspiration from the subject communicators you love. If you’re stuck for ideas, watch this video [Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats] to get you started. Which aspects of this communication style do you enjoy? How do Rosling’s words make statistics accessible?
- While you’re aiming to write accessibly, make sure not to oversimplify and potentially misrepresent key aspects of the subject matter.
- Watch out for aspects of style, using short, snippy paragraphs, active voice, accessible language, and first-person pronouns.
- Remember, ‘So what?’
- Have fun with the opportunity to write for a different audience!
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