The Problems Section

What specific dimension of the issue are you addressing?

The Problem is the chunk of the broader Issue that you’re addressing in your area of expertise. It’s your piece of the pie, reflecting your work and expert knowledge. Think about your research questions and what aspect of the specific problem you’re addressing would matter to your audience. The Problem is also where you set up the So What and describe the situation you see and want to address.

​Questions to ask yourself as you define the Problem:

As I’m conducting my research, what am I seeing that makes me want to communicate?

How does it affect people?

How can I put it into terms that my audience can readily grasp?

Side-by-Side Example

See the full side-by-side of Kathy’s Message Box here.


The old paradigm of wildlife conservation—where protected areas are established and wildlife is considered ‘conserved’—fails to adequately protect many species—we have the tools to fix this issue.

Under the specter of continued land cover changes, the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological processes will depend on rigorously defined protected area/corridor networks at regional and continental scales.

This is especially true under a changing climate. It has been shown that wildlife are shifting their ranges at a rate 3x previously thought (11 miles further N. every decade = equivalent to the world’s animals slowly shifting 20 cm north every hour to escape warmer weather.

Initial Feedback

This includes a lot of factual detail, and a lot of that detail is focused on the solution, rather than the problem she wants to discuss.


Many species of wildlife in the US are declining.

The US loses about 2 million acres of natural land per year—larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. This loss fragments wildlife habitat and inhibits wildlife movement.

Wildlife do not observe political boundaries, yet federal, state, tribal, and local agencies don’t coordinate land use decisions.

Refined Feedback

This spells out the base problem—that wildlife are declining—and the two key points included about why that is happening also fit with how Kathy articulated the Issue.

FAQs for the Problem Section

What’s the difference between the Problem and the Issue?

The Issue box provides the broader context and sets the stage, while the Problem box is more focused and specific to your work or research question. The Issue box is helpful for providing context and indicating how the Problem you’ve identified fits into the bigger picture.

What if there’s more than one Problem?

There might well be more than one Problem that you’re seeing—the world is complex and nuanced. And some problems have several key components. Consider whether you need to talk about two problems with this audience. If one of these problems is more urgent or important than the other, use that as your main problem, and spend less time on, or leave out, the second problem. We generally recommend focusing on just one problem per audience, but it all depends on the context. If this is a situation where you feel you can include more information, give it a try. But be judicious and mindful of what will be relevant and useful to the audience you’re targeting.

How can I find the Problem?

For many scientists, the Problem is their research question. A problem might also reveal itself through a troubling trend in the data, or a situation that will have a negative effect on people or the environment.

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More from the Message Box


View Initial and Refined Message Box examples from Dr. Kathy Zeller


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Discover how researchers from different fields use the Message Box to communicate with a variety of audiences


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