Understanding your audience will enable you to more effectively communicate your message, says Naomi Penfold.
Guest contributor Naomi Penfold
If you became a scientist to make the world a better place, you’re not alone. But to achieve this, you need to do more than just the science. Your findings need to reach the ears of decision makers, politicians, the media and funding bodies. One way to reach them is by communicating your science to the general public.
There are people who do this professionally, but it’s also down to the scientist to get the conversations going. Standing on a soapbox reciting an abstract that makes perfect sense to you might not lead to the response you’re after (often you’ll just get your echo in return). One of the most important factors in marketing and a tip oft-cited to communicators-in-training is to know your audience. Tailoring your message to the people you are trying to engage will make it easier for them to listen, absorb and act on your message.
The Wellcome Trust recently commissioned a commercial market research company to ask what the general public think about antibiotics and the problem of resistance, in the hope that understanding the audience better could improve their communications. They surveyed people from across age brackets, education levels and socioeconomic statuses. The study revealed that the term commonly used by scientists to describe this phenomenon – antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – was meaningless to the wider public. One common misconception was that our own bodies, not the bacteria, are becoming resistant to the drugs. In addition, the analysis found that the problem holds no gravitas with those interviewed. Overdramatised headlines about ‘superbugs’ and ‘millions of people dying’ are difficult to relate to. Worse, by describing a problem that is too big to comprehend, these strong messages were pushing people into wilful ignorance or disbelief.
Of particular value in this research was asking how scientists can communicate better, with the result another home-truth of good communication: make it relevant. When the participants were shown pictures of some of the resistant bacteria, they made the threat recognisable – “Oh, I’ve had E. coli”. Familiarity with the problem at hand enables people to understand it and to recognise that it may affect them directly. Wellcome have adopted the term ‘drug-resistant infections’ for their external communications in an effort to combat the AMR misunderstanding and to increase awareness in the general public.
We scientists are often accused of living in ivory towers. It’s time to demonstrate that we are everyday people too. It’s time to put down that megaphone and start talking about your science on a level playing field.
How to understand your audience
Whilst formal market research may be beyond your reach, there’s nothing to stop you from understanding your audience better in other ways. Big public outreach events often tell you the target demographic; for smaller talks, you might need to go to one first to meet your audience. With online communications, such as videos, blogs and tweets, it’s informative to know whether your followers are your peers or from a wider cross-section of society.
Make it relevant
Once you know your audience, put yourself in their shoes. Why are they paying you attention? What is their current level of science education? Which information is interesting and relevant to them? How will they use that new information afterwards? For example, communicating science to policymakers and politicians requires turning the normal academic structure on its head: politicians need snappy headlines to win their attention, policymakers want ‘best guess’ information that they can apply immediately to new policies. Challenge yourself to adapt your research for MPs by entering a poster into this year’s SET for Britain competition – you may end up taking your science directly to those with the power to orchestrate change!
Improve your technique
As scientists, we subject our academic work to peer review as the norm, so why not do the same for your outreach? You could request comments on your personal blog or use Twitter analytics to spot which tweets hit the mark. A great way to get honest feedback is to ask children. No other audience will ask such inquisitive, pertinent questions and demand an adequate response. They are also very forgiving so make for an ideal practise audience. One way to try talking science with schoolchildren is via the I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! initiative.
Practice makes perfect. Start communicating now and use the experience as a learning curve. It takes effort to sow the first seeds, but with a little nurture, those seeds may grow into real grass-roots action. And finally, never forget that to an expert in a completely different field, you are the public.
Naomi is a runner up in the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo. She is also a final year PhD student in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge, studying the impact of obesity during pregnancy on brain pathways. In her spare time, she thinks a lot about science policy and the future, and is an active tweeter @npscience.
Register for the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo in London and find out more about the conference delegates, exhibitors and workshop sessions on offer. You can follow the action on Twitter with #NJCE15.