The communications challenge: how can evaluation cut through?

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April 2019

By Jade Maloney, Emily Verstege and Ruby Leahy-Gatfield

Evaluation is about assessing the ‘merit, worth or value’ of something (in our context, this is usually a policy, an intervention or program) to inform decision-making. The significant amount of expenditure on evaluation, particularly by government, has been justified by the potential for use of evaluations to improve outcomes and ensure effective targeting of limited resources. But evaluation reports often go un-used, gathering dust on shelves.

A range of factors contribute to this (see Michael Quinn Patton’s Utilisation-Focused Evaluation and Jade’s research on evaluation use in the Australian context). Poor communication is one of these factors.

The Information Age

This is the age of information overload and evaluation is unlikely at the top of your audience’s to do list.

  • High volume: We’re overwhelmed by our email and social media accounts, big data and the wealth of references at our fingertips. There’s every chance your signal will be lost, if it doesn’t cut through all this noise.
  • Low memory: The human brain can only process a small amount of new information at once. The average person can only hold four chunks of information in their brain at a time. Is your chunk interesting enough to take the place of what your audience is having for lunch?
  • Jargon over meaning: It’s too easy to say things like “We used a theory-based approach to assess an innovative intervention to identify best practice components to leverage for future scalability.” But no one will know what you mean. (And do you?!)

The key communication issues

Evaluation reports can fail on communications in many ways. 

  • Complexity: Too much information is overwhelming. It makes it hard for your audience to know what’s important and even harder to remember it.
  • Misunderstanding: Too little information leaves your findings open to misinterpretation. Jargon contributes to this.
  • Boredom: Overly complicated and difficult to understand information makes it too easy for your audience to check out. A report needs to engage to have a chance of competing with what else is going on them.

When a report does not tell a story that engages, when key questions are left unanswered, and when the jargon overtakes the words, reading an evaluation report becomes a chore rather than a gift.

Our clear communications journey

Jade studied journalism and began her career in publishing before joining ARTD in 2008 and completed her Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 2013. Emily has worked as science writer and editor and—as her school report cards note—has always been a competent verbal communicator. Ruby worked in the communications team at International IDEA in Stockholm and has been known to stick grammar jokes up on the office walls.

Jade and Emily have been thinking about communication in evaluation for years. They first presented on How Effective Communication Can Help Evaluations Have More Influence at the Australian Evaluation Society International Evaluation Conference in Sydney in 2011. They’re both relieved and disappointed that much of their advice remains relevant.

Our favourite books about communication include Gabrielle Dolan’s Stories for Work, Chip and Dan Heath’s Ideas That Stick, Neil James’s Writing at Work, and Mark Tredinnick’s The Little Red Writing Book.

Our collective frustration is the wilful misuse of the possessive apostrophe (anyone for scrambled egg’s?) and evaluations that don’t reach their potential because they get stuck behind communication barriers.

The tips to come

In this seven-part Communication for Evaluation series, we’ll step you through our top tips for evaluation communications that cut through. We’ll cover ways to:

  • Know your audience
  • Make it a process not just a product
  • Structure it
  • Tell stories
  • Cut the clutter (use plain English)
  • Hack yourself to write better.