19 August 2015

5 personal reflections on the GNR 2015 report-writing process

As the PDF proofs are being finalized before the 2015 Global Nutrition Report goes off to the printers next week, I wanted to jot down some personal reflections on the process before I forget them.   In doing so, I will hopefully whet your appetite for what is in the report itself (September 22 release). 

I should add, these views are wholly mine--I'm not speaking for anyone else.  

My reflections fall under 5 points

1.  The report is really ambitious 

Consider, we have:

(a) reached out to potential new stakeholders in climate, food systems and businesses.  This required understanding their views and trying to not only suggest when it was in nutrition's interests to engage them, but also why it is in their interests

(b) tried hard to get a better balance between  undernutrition and overweight/obesity/nutrition related NCDs.  We have monitored more indicators (including exclusive breastfeeding and adult obesity), looked for convergence and tradeoff points between the two worlds, developed more unifying concepts and reached out to more stakeholders in the latter community.  It has not been easy.  The worlds are quite separate and sometimes highlighting one set of issues can diminish the perceived importance of the other

(c) developed more nuanced assessments of progress (not just on and off course) and expanded the set of assessments to all N4G business commitments and all donor financial commitments

(d) worked with SUN country governments to bring new data to the table on domestic budget allocations to nutrition

(e) walked a tightrope between publishing the new State level India data and having them officially released (luckily they were, although the Economist had already leaked them)

(f) reached out beyond the usual (important) suspects to get endorsements from those in climate, finance, sports and popular culture

As a result the report is about a third longer than the first. 

During one of our stakeholder group meetings in February in Addis, one of the stakeholders said "the report is ambitious--too ambitious perhaps?".  I understood the sentiment--more can be less--but my own view was, in 2015, when the world is reshaping development, nutrition has to be in the mix, it has to be relevant and it has to be ambitious for itself. 

2.  The production of report has been more closely followed this year

Version 0 was produced on April 15, version1 on May 13, version 2 on June 15 and the final version on July 26.  At each stage we had over 100 pages of comments and then many hundreds more in track changes.  

We also had about 30 pages of comments from 4 anonymous Lancet reviewers.

Some of our key stakeholders gave us many more comments this year than last.

In addition, many more partners have given us advice on communications and messaging than last year.

One could interpret this negatively I suppose--we are less trusted than before--but I think it reflects a sense that the report matters and therefore we need to get it right.  And the report quality improved tremendously between version 0 and 3.

3.  It is hard to begin writing a second report 4 months after the first has been published

As we were launching the first report we had to begin thinking about the second.  Content was  guided by an open consultation process in Dec/Jan, but finding the sheer willpower to being thinking about the next report when you are still digesting the first was a real challenge. 

One of our stakeholders said, is it worth doing a new report in 2015?  We felt it was--new data, new issues, new opportunities.  All presented themselves.

4.  The balance between technical soundness and usefulness for advocacy is as fine as ever

This was one of the hardest things to balance.  Getting the technical language right in a way that people outside the nutrition bubble can understand.  We did not always succeed.  We erred on the technical side, figuring that a number of sharable content products could be generated (a 12 pager, infographics, tweets, blogs, op-eds etc).  But getting the big picture and the fine grain to line up was really hard.  

5.  It has been great to broaden the GNR team out

One of the things the Dalberg evaluation of GNR 2014 (soon to be posted on the GNR website) pointed out was that it was too dependent on me.  This is a very fair comment, and we expanded the co-chair team by adding Corinna Hawkes and Emorn Wasantwisut.  They have been brilliant--sharing the workloads, making joint decisions, liaising with the IEG and generally bringing different perspectives to bear. (And keeping my excesses in check, just about.)

We also developed a more coherent communications strategy this time around (now that we know what the report looks like!), involving our partners much more.

Finally, I want to share a question that one of our partners asked me and what I said to them:  is the GNR a mirror or a beacon?  I said "both": it tells us where we are on outcomes and actions (mirror) and it offers pointers on how to get to our goal (beacon)--ending malnutrition in all its forms.

Being involved in the report remains a privilege.  A blast.  A thrill.  We hope you enjoy it when it comes out on September 22.

13 August 2015

10 tips on communicating complex ideas

One of my IFPRI colleagues recently asked me if I had any course materials to share on how to communicate complex ideas to non-specialists.  I was surprised to have to tell her that I did not.  I don't know if much exists that is nutrition-specific. 

Communicating clearly to non nutrition folks is difficult for nutrition folks because the topic is so laden with jargon and the technicalities actually matter.  But that is no excuse.

So I thought I would try to help my IFPRI colleague out (and maybe a few others) with some thoughts about how to communicate complex ideas in nutrition to lay people. (And remember I am no expert).

1.  Understand the complex idea.  You have to really understand the complexity before you can simplify.  This may seem counterintuitive, but I have found it much easier to simplify from understanding than from ignorance.  As Director of IDS I often had to be a 2 minute expert on stuff I had not actually done any research on.  I found it much harder to simplify without being simplistic.  Even if you have not done research on the topic you are trying to communicate, be sure you understand the nuances--talk to people who are experts.

2. Get to the core issue.  Don't be distracted by second order issues.  How to identify the core issue?  Is it descriptive (e.g. there is more poverty in low-middle income countries than in low income countries)?  Is it associative (e.g. are certain types of diets more linked with disease than others?) Or is it causal (does this intervention affect that indicator)?  What is the centre of gravity of the piece of research?  Work hard at finding this story.  If you are lucky it will also be counterintuitive.

3. Use simple language.  Instead of utilize, try use.  Instead of scale up, try "getting programs to people that need them". Instead of stunting, try kids who are short for their age.  Instead of micronutrients try vitamins and minerals.  

4. Never over-claim. This does not mean focus on every caveat.  I would only focus on the first order caveats. For example, this program only works in this population.  This indicator is only linked with this indicator under these conditions.  Make sure people know where to go to have access to the full report and in that report make clear all the limitations of your report.  But never claim something the research does not show.

5. Have a relentless focus on the "so what?"  If a relationship is statistically significant, is it significant in terms of magnitude?  If the effect of a price rise of 10% in sweetened sodas on obesity rates is statistically significant but results in a decrease in purchases of 0.25% then it is important to make this clear.  If the "so what" is only of interest to other researchers, then don't bother trying to communicate it to anyone else.

6. Understand your audience.  Lay audiences are heterogeneous (and don't use THAT term)--are they businesspeople, civil servants, doctors, media, constituents, villagers, parents or schoolkids?  Talk to some of them ahead of time if possible.  Have a look at their newspapers or websites to see how they think, speak, communicate.

7. Read around your subject as much as possible.  Don't just focus on your narrow sub-sub field.  Try to find big picture books, views and blogs to see how your work fits in a wider context (especially for people starting out in research careers).

8. Try it out on your friends and family (if they are outside your field).  I do this a lot.  I started talk about the MDGs once and got only blank looks. Same with economic development. Find language that they can access and that does not bore them stiff.

9. Powerpoints? Use all the space on the slide! Use simple but memorable pictures that convey the messages that are laid over them.  Never use text below 32 point.  Use as few words as possible.  Write the text for the audience, not for yourself! Have no more than one per minute of your presentation, preferably less.

10. Hone your communication skills.  You may not believe Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour idea, but he is right: practice gets you closer to perfect. Also learn from those who do it well.  Personally I continue to marvel at the communication skills of people like Paul Collier, Simon Maxwell and Jeff Sachs. You don't have to agree with what they say, but learn from how they say it--their memorable use of images, metaphors and sticky phrases.