Reporting back – a research practice in plain English

When we start our training as social researchers, we are told that reporting back to research participants is good practice and ethical behaviour. After all people have shared their thoughts, experiences, insights, hopes, fears and such with us, usually in confidence and almost always about some topic they care about or has meaning in their lives – if not, why would we do the research?

One of the things I’ve found tricky about reporting back is putting my waffly, academic writing and findings into plain English. I like a good waffle, I like concepts and deep thoughtful analysis – but it is often hard to read or understand once I start waffling on.

But simplifying, clarifying and finding plain English expression and real-world application is where your research becomes knowledge and meaning. So, I’ve kept at it, though I haven’t always found it easy.

Recently, I took my PhD findings back to research participants from one of my case studies. I worked and worked at the presentation, trying to make it sensible, accessible and retain the meaning. I’d done a theory-heavy PhD thesis, so believe me, this was an actual task.

Ultimately, and to my utter surprise, it was a really rewarding and satisfying task.

Amazingly I spoke comfortably to my couple of handouts - possibly for the first time without power point slides or comprehensive speaking notes!

My “conceptual lens derived from political representation theory” (that took me the best part of a year to develop) became 3 ‘rules’ relevant to their work as a community committee.

The feedback they gave me was it was actually understandable and interesting… “not like some PhDs when they waffle on and you can’t stop them, and you’ve got no idea what they’re talking about” (that was me, that must have been me!)

What worked for me to crack this? Firstly, I went back to the data.

I looked at the kind of language people used when they talked to me in interviews, I looked at the written documentation for the kind of terms and words they used when recording their actions. The clues were all there.

It makes sense when you think about it. I had taken plain English and analysed it into ‘academicese’. It stands to reason that going back to people’s own words, concepts and ways of describing the research topic was going to make it accessible and meaningful back in the real world.

Secondly, I subjected myself to the potential embarrassed silence or ridicule from my family… they don’t hold back, so they make a good litmus test. Especially teenagers. If you have any teens lying about, I highly recommend trying your ‘plain English’ version on a them. Although if you’re a little vulnerable about feedback, maybe try a kindly auntie or uncle.

I love field work: talking with people, learning about topics, finding new insights. I love analysis: that deep thinking and considering, finding links, patterns and surprises. And now to my list of research loves, I’m happily adding reporting back in plain English.

Hobart, Tasmania | | +61 3 6226 4869

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