Storytelling with Impact Evidence

Narrative is a vital framework for communicating and planning your research impact. Using storytelling to bring an audience, reader or collaborator on a journey with you can give deeper and fuller insight into your work. By moving beyond description and into narrative, impact communication can involve empathy, interest and understanding, whilst firmly contextualising the story of how your research changed the world. You can construct narratives by collecting pieces of evidence to support your claims and demonstrate the strength of the impact.

In REF2021, Impact Case Studies could provide an indicative maximum of 10 pieces of evidence. The evidence had two main tasks. It corroborated the strength of the impact (the ‘reach’ and the ‘significance’) and it verified how the research caused the impact. Sensitive evidence could be provided for the REF2021 assessment but withheld from publication.

Impact Case Study authors and other researchers looking to evidence their impact can think about a typology of the different kinds of evidence. The different kinds of evidence you collect can connect to all tell the long-term story of how the research caused beneficial changes beyond academia.

When the work is beginning, you will be generating evidence of relationships forming and commercial activities starting up. Examples: testimonial letters, invitations to attend a summit, memoranda of understanding, or contracts.

When the work is underway, you will generate evidence of the research starting to address a need. Examples: briefing notes or recommendations made by the researchers, policy changes based on the recommendations, early data indicating changes over a base rate, organisational strategy or practice changes based on the research, or news reports describing the research being used.

When the work is mature, you can collect evidence of how the research has addressed needs to make a difference. This could be evaluative, using qualitative and quantitative data types to say the impact’s reach and significance. Examples: organisational reports on how their new practices or policies have been effective, commercial sales data, and longitudinal changes over a base rate. The Research Impact team has an evidence typology resource giving examples of metrics to indicate beneficial changes.

For some impact work, the evidence can then represent next steps. This evidence can use similar types to when the work is beginning. It can include testimonials from research users on how the initial impact has enabled a new possibility. It can also show organisational intent to expand the uptake beyond the first use (e.g., rollout in several new hospital trusts after benefiting a first one).

Storytelling Example

Using policy impacts as an example, see how the types of evidence can chain together to tell a story. For policy impacts, authors might think about four main types of evidence: testimonial letters from people representing organisations; policy briefs by the research team; guidance or policy documents organisations have issued; and event reports.

  • Testimonials can confirm the strength of the research’s influence on the writer’s decision making and the subsequent benefits realised. REF2021 Impact Case Study authors would often use testimonial quotations in-line to explain or contextualise other evidence types.
  • Policy briefs and recommendations clarified what the research team / research users advocated to policymakers. They can show the underlying problem and put it in the context of the research. They can show what new approaches the research had enabled.
  • Guidance or policy. These documents were given as evidence of how the research informed an activity that had an influence over a population of people, e.g., the policy changed the laws affecting X people in each area; the policy affected all grants the grant-making foundation reviewed.
  • In-progress or post-event reports tend to use quantitative data to show how the influence over policy or guidance has translated into actual benefits – e.g., after being implemented, the policy has now saved X number of lives; all the grants met a higher and more robust ethical standard. They evaluate the data and put it into context. In REF2021, the reports were often provided by the organisations who used the research.

High-scoring REF2021 case studies tended to not use complex or proprietary metrics, nor likely-to-be subjective metrics (e.g., the value of in-kind labour). These would invite methodological scrutiny and seem more like argument than statement. The metrics used were backed up with specific evidence, and most often came from an external source’s reporting.

When they described the impacts, REF2021 Impact Case Studies cited evidence in-line. They could include an indicative maximum of 10 pieces of evidence in a separate section titled ‘Sources to corroborate the impact’. In-line citations used an alpha / alphanumeric code to refer to entries in the ‘Sources to corroborate the impact’ section (E1, E2, E3…). The pieces of evidence were then submitted with the Impact Case Study.

Impact Projects and Storytelling

Research Impact work often occurs in projects with set durations, e.g., 12 months. Your funder will ask you to collect evidence of how your project is making impact.

Here’s some initial advice on designing a short-term funded project’s evidence collection to contribute to greater-scope storytelling:

  • You must focus on the task at hand. Ensure you are capturing evidence of the funded project, not just setting up for a greater scope evaluation. If you are using the funding to take first steps, you need to have a mechanism to evaluate whether those first steps are effective.
  • Design your project’s impact evidence collection and any evaluations so you could repeat them in your broader, greater-scope work. This will provide you the robustness and decision-making opportunity of a bigger, longer-term dataset.
  • If you’re starting out, can you use the project to collect baseline evidence showing the scale of your potential future impact work? You can schedule intra-project review points to think about how you can scale the project up (or out) for next steps. Does the project give you opportunities to explore if you can collect the long-term data you might need?
  • Think about how to use timescales to your advantage. Running the funded project requires you to capture evidence in a timely manner. It can let you test your longer-term evidence collection, evaluation, and storage methodologies on a shorter timescale. Working with funder reporting requirements and other stakeholders can give you access to reporting methodologies you could retain to use for yourself over the longer period.
  • Consider how the project will build on any earlier or complementary evidence collection. Does the new project let you validate your earlier work and make your overall evidence more robust?
  • Prepare for future partnerships. Can you use this evidence to evaluate the methods you want to propose other organisations use? Or, if the funding comes with thematic rules or requires specific activities (e.g., public engagement), could those help you develop more testimonials or gain more clarity into the underlying problems?

Other resources on how to embed impact into your research, capturing evidence qualitatively and quantitatively, and storing your evidence in Pure can be found on our training page.