Getting Your Message Out

Using Visuals to Communicate Health Research Outside of Academia

Trish Roche
Jul 18, 2018 · 6 min read

By Trish Roche

In the first of these 3 posts, Pat discussed the different types of infographics and what kind of information they’re best suited to. This week, Trish shares some steps for crafting key messages for infographics and other visual knowledge tools. In the final post, Joanne Wincentak, knowledge broker for Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, shares seven tips for creating visual knowledge products for people who don’t consider themselves designers, using a Visme infographic.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in academic research, thoughts of ‘sharing research findings’ bring to mind something along these lines:


To be fair, this template from UCSF is a pretty good example of a research poster, aside from it having too many words. It’s well laid-out, isn’t too crowded, is well-aligned, and has relevant key images. Outside of academia though, this isn’t going to fly — it’s overwhelming, and (to the general public) just plain boring.

Enter: the infographic. It’s captivating. It draws your attention. It presents key information prominently without making readers work too hard to understand the material.


Visual storytelling can make your research more accessible to a general audience and help them better encode and recall the information. Moreover, presenting data visually can reveal hidden patterns within mountains of info.

For many academics, crafting messages for non-academic audiences might require a shift in mindset, as it demands research to be framed in a very different way. For example, take Leanne’s blog on engaging with policy-makers, where she compares the contexts of the academic and political worlds, and how motivations, timelines, and measures of success vary greatly.

Whereas in academia, you’re playing the ‘long’ game and building your case with evidence, politics is more about quick snippets of information and short attention spans.

As researchers, our approach to understanding research findings starts with knowing the current state of the literature, a detailed look at methodology, and then a review of the results and conclusion. But this kind of top-heavy approach is going to completely lose just about everybody else almost immediately.

Instead, we have to use a different approach to sharing research — starting with a key message (aka the conclusion). “What does it all mean?” Your public implores. “Tell me. Right now.”

If your conclusion/key message/title is clear enough, you should be able to provide a few key points of evidence to support it. And that’s all your poster, infographic, or other visual tool should ever have outside of the realm of academia, with very few exceptions. Additional information about methods and background can be made available (via a link to a webpage or a research article) for anyone who wants to dig deeper [Editor’s note: they probably won’t].

Designing Content for an Infographic or Poster

Using various resources (including our Knowledge Translation platform’s Creative & Strategic Services lead and a blog or two), we devised some steps for developing key messages around your research and turning your data into a story that you can take to a graphic designer, or use yourself to create your own knowledge products.

1. Identify Your Audience

Who is your audience? What do they care about? What are their motivations? What do they need to do their job? Without these insights, you’re throwing communications darts with a blindfold on across a football field in a windstorm and hoping it works out.

2. Set Your Goal

What do you want out of this visual — to increase awareness? To advocate for more funding or research? To influence policy? Think about where your audience is now (what do they believe or currently do), and where you want them to go (how do you want them to have changed by hearing what you have to say?). That’s your goal.

3. Choose a Strategy

What are you going to do to convince your audience that your story is worth listening to, and your goal is worth achieving? Are you appealing to emotion? Politics? Financial incentives? What is the easiest, most direct way of achieving your goal? What barrier(s) could get in your way, and what are you going to do about it?

4. Craft Key Messages

Using your strategy and narrative as a guide, determine what your key message(s) are that you want to convey to your audience. If they could take away just one thing from your visual/presentation, what would it be? Make sure it is clear (free of jargon and technical language, and relevant), concise (short and to the point, no extra information), consistent (messages need to be repeated to sink in), and most importantly, ties back to your stated communications goal.

5. Find Your Narrative

How can you bundle the key messages you just identified into a coherent and compelling story? What is the beginning (context of background and importance within the bigger picture), middle (inciting incident, rising conflict, proof), and end (climax, resolution) of your tale?

6. Create an Outline

This is where you want to brainstorm ideas and sketch out a storyboard, or even a script, for your visual or presentation. And (unless you’re incredibly proficient in it) don’t start in Powerpoint. The goal here is to express your ideas as quickly as possible, and not invest time in making things look good. Too often, once we boot a design program, we spend far too much time playing around with the layout and tools. Using pen and paper (or even Word if you’re writing a script) eliminates this time-wasting temptation.

You may need to go through a number of completely different versions to find something that really works — don’t be afraid to abandon ideas you don’t love. By doing this as a rough draft, you save time by not having to go back on a design you’ve sunk 10 hours into.

7. Test Key Messages

Ideally, you would be able to share your storyboard and key message(s) with a representative from your intended audience to gather their feedback. Unless you have access to these people, make do with any non-researchers in your life who will be honest with you (preferably brutally honest). Ask your neighbour, your grandparents, parents, friends, and other non-researchers to review your proposed content to make sure it’s relevant, makes sense to their non-expert eye, and is interesting and engaging.

Listen to their feedback, and incorporate the relevant bits into your next draft (by relevant, we mean if someone says “I don’t get it,” you should probably listen to that feedback, but if they say “I’d change the colour, I don’t like green,” you should probably exercise a bit more discretion as to whether you need to act on it).

By following these seven steps, you should have a good idea of your key messages and communications goals, articulated why your audience will care, and have a user-tested draft ready for execution. And this is a good place to hand the work off to a designer if you have the budget because they’ll know how to elevate your concept into an effective KT tool, and free you from a process that could potentially be a giant drain of your time because you may not have the requisite skills or experience.

But, if you decide to go it on your own (because you love creating visuals, or don’t have funds for a designer, or maybe both), be sure to check out our subsequent posts on how to create visuals of your work.

What steps do you use to create your key messages? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @KnowledgeNudge.

About the Author

Trish Roche is a knowledge broker with the George & Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI). Her primary interests lie in advancing the science of knowledge translation, especially in the realm of basic biomedical science. Find her on Twitter @TrishMcNish.


Publishing bi-weekly, we focus on all things knowledge translation (KT) – synthesis, exchange, application & dissemination – from a health perspective. Topics include the science of KT, patient engagement, and media & dissemination.

Trish Roche

Written by

Optimist & Knowledge Broker @KnowledgeNudge @CHIMBca / Passion for advancing KT in basic research


Publishing bi-weekly, we focus on all things knowledge translation (KT) – synthesis, exchange, application & dissemination – from a health perspective. Topics include the science of KT, patient engagement, and media & dissemination.

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