Our top 5 tips for engaging on complex or difficult topics

We often conduct research with the public on complex topics – the details of which are likely to be unfamiliar to participants. Over the years we have successfully helped members of the public to understand, discuss and debate a wide range of complex subjects, from the challenges of global food sustainability to the difficulties facing NHS bodies in redesigning services for a changing population.

Here are our five top tips for engaging on complex topics:

Use visuals to help convey complex information

Information can be provided through presentations, briefings, videos, quiz sessions and expert speakers to ensure that different learning styles are catered for. Complex information needs to be broken down into bite-sized pieces and made fully digestible. Visual information often works better, in this respect.

We often use graphically illustrated scenarios/story boards to aid comprehension of the key issues and to facilitate discussion. Graphic illustrations can convey potentially quite complex scenarios in a way that makes intuitive sense because it is easy to show relationships and links. Digital illustrations are relatively quick to produce and very adaptable, so they are a good fit for projects with tight timings and budgets.

In a number of recent projects, we have taken this further by developing bespoke whiteboard animations. The availability of off-the-shelf software such as Videoscribe (animations) makes the process relatively easy. At Community Research, we are increasingly using this technique as part of our deliberative research tool set and we’re finding it really works. More information on animations is provided in our blog post of 3rd July 2017.


Use familiar formats to get the message across

In a recent workshop conducted for South Staffs Water, we wanted participants to discuss the merits of different options for the provision of water over the next 25 years. Some of these options were very technical. We devised a game of ‘top trumps’ whereby the different water supply options were rated using the same format as the children’s game. This meant participants took in the information easily and gave them a way of discussing pros and cons of each option in a way that resonated.

Encourage participants to think about the issues in advance

Our experience suggests that it will be much easier to get into the debate quickly, if participants to complete a short, simple pre-task prior to coming along. This helps sensitise people to the issues and encourages them to start thinking about their views prior to the research.

Pre-tasks need to be simple so that they are not off-putting for participants – completing a short questionnaire or diary, perhaps, looking for recent newspaper articles or discussing the topic with friends. However, more creative pre-tasks can help set the tone for a more productive engagement session. We have sometimes asked participants to bring along an object that reminds them of the subject in question or given participants a disposable camera and asked them to take photos relating to the topic matter in advance (which are then processed and used to make a collage at the actual session).

Build up knowledge over time

We are finding that our clients are increasingly asking for us to engage with informed groups of consumers. Once consumers have been educated about a particular issue, it makes sense to use the same cohort again to discuss related issues. We have a number of ways of doing this, most commonly by holding reconvened events either online or offline.

We’ve found that online bulletin boards are an ideal vehicle for continuing the conversation if the consumers are geographically dispersed or if time pressures mean that they would find it difficult to meet again in person. An alternative option is to set up a qualitative panel of consumers – participants who sign up to attend a certain number of sessions over a given time period. We’ve recently done this for Ofgem and Portsmouth Water and are about to set up a similar structure for the Food Standards Agency. This means that the participants are informed about the basics of the organisation and the regulatory framework under which they work at the first session, meaning that participants can get straight into the debate at subsequent events.

Approach the subject in a different way

For some complex and controversial topics, a key barrier to facilitating a successful discussion can be the focus on problem solving. Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a model for analysis and decision-making developed at Case Western Reserve University‘s department of Organizational Behavior, starting with a 1987 article by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. They felt that the overuse of “problem-solving” as a model was often holding back understanding because of the focus on challenges and problems.

AI attempts to use ways of asking questions and envisioning the future to foster positive relationships and build on the present potential of a given person, organisation or situation. The aim is to build – or rebuild – around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t. AI seeks to discover the conditions of success. If ‘what good looks like’ can be understood – along with the factors that enable and support ‘good’ – then these conditions can be replicated.  We’ve found that this technique can really help participants engage with subjects in a different way and not get bogged down on problems or what hasn’t worked in the past.

One final tip could be to ‘use the professionals’ as it is harder than it looks to do this stuff well, but of course, we would say that wouldn’t we?!

Alan Whitlock