In science communication, we are often misled by commonly used phrases such as “public engagement” and “public understanding of science” where we lead to believe that the audience for our work is merely “the public”. In this post I’ll be explaining why this is wildly unhelpful when you want to communicate something important like research and in a future article I’ll share with you the steps you can take to identify your audience for your communication project
We can all agree that “the public” means “everyone” and not everyone is affected or interested by everything. To connect with an audience, you have to present something that is relevant to them so that they will want to know more about it. For example, I identify as a woman and have ovaries so I might be interested in research on a chemical in food that reduces the likelihood that I will develop ovarian cancer. Someone without ovaries may not be as intrigued by this research because it simply doesn’t apply to them. Therefore, you’ve already lost a good portion of “the public” because the topic of your research isn’t related to a large chunk of people.
When you explain something to someone, you want them to be able to follow what you say. Some people will be lost as soon as you add one scientific term, but others will be familiar with scientific terms.
An example to illustrate this:
A group of adults with parents affected by dementia are likely to have researched the condition or had it explained to them by a nurse or doctor. They are likely to understand certain specialist terms associated with dementia and you could go into detail about certain biological aspects that their parents are affected by. On the other hand, the grandchildren of the people living with dementia are much younger and may have been shielded by their parents from the realities of the disease. Here it isn’t appropriate to use scientific language, but you can still explain what is going on without it and achieve some level of understanding.
Age isn’t the only factor that affects our level of knowledge; our qualifications have led us down different paths of knowledge and to become more specialised we’ve had to shed some knowledge that isn’t frequently used along the way. A big misconception related to this is that all scientists know and understand all types of science when nothing could be further from the truth!
An 80-year-old may not respond to the interpretive dance of your research in the same way a teenager might. Unless you deliver your communication project in every perceivable way (legitimately impossible), you’ll never reach every single person.
I don’t use reddit, for example, so I am unlikely to see any information posted on there unless someone shows it to me or it is shared on Instagram by someone I follow. I do watch a lot of Youtube so if you provide me with an engaging video, I am likely to watch it.
Speaking formally will bore some audiences and being chatty will stop some people taking you seriously. Those are two different ends of the spectrum, and there are ways to meet in the middle to connect to a broad audience, but adapting your tone of voice whether it be funny, matter of fact, dry or enthusiastic, is a sure fire way to connect to certain people and not others.
A couple of examples:
At conferences you’re probably a lot more polite and reserved when you talk to attendees than if you were at a New Year’s Eve party with a group of people.
If I wrote a scientific paper in the style that I write most of my blogs (chatty and informal), I would never get published, but my blog stats have told me some people enjoy the tone of my blogs and come back repeatedly.
If you asked me to describe myself, I would say I’m an environmentally conscious science communicator. Immediately I’ve revealed two communities that I engage with and the places that you are most likely to find me. If you wanted to engage with me, you would not be able to do so if you posted your research video in a pro-Trump Facebook group and so I might never see what you have to say about your research. I doubt anyone would describe themselves as “the public”; they will always have something that links them to another group of people and this will give you a clue as to where you can find them.
What is awareness? For me it’s eliciting a short-lived expression of interest from the most people possible. It’s the hope that if you talk to as many people as possible about a problem it might inspire a few people to take their interest further, but you haven’t quite decided what “further” is. If they said it out loud “oh that’s interesting, thanks for letting me know”. They’re not inspired, and they have very little motivation to take the topic further. Raising awareness or targeting as many people as possible tends to attract the same type of people and exclude others.
Do your research justice and make a long-lasting impression on your audience, whoever they are, so that they will remember more about your research than the type of edible offering on your stall.
Of course, there are more than 5 reasons why the public doesn’t exist and there has been important research on what happens when you try to engage everyone in science:
- Science for What Public? Addressing Equity in American ScienceMuseums and Science Centers by Noah Weeth Feinstein and David Meshoulam
- Science festivals: do they succeed in reaching beyond the ‘already engaged’? by Karen Bultitude
This post is not denying the ability to communcate to a broad audience, but you’ll have to make sure there is something relevant for everyone you anticipate to engage with. For now, I hope this inspires you to do more than just skim the surface when it comes to choosing who to target with your science communication!
This information is also available as an infographic.
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