Researchers are under increasing pressure to communicate the results of their endeavours more widely. But how can we begin to establish a meaningful dialogue with an audience we don’t know?
My name’s James Harle, and in my capacity as a writer for Research Media I work with researchers and research-performing organisations to help share their work in an accessible and impactful way. It can be a demanding task; research is inherently complex after all – if it weren’t, we’d all be doing it – and many investigators are only used to explaining what they do to similarly expert colleagues. In my experience, however, there is no topic so obtuse or abstract that it can’t be made accessible (at least in principle) to a given audience.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: powerful communication – the kind that not only puts a message across but makes it stick, makes it memorable – begins with knowing your audience. When you know the person you’re talking to, you understand their experience and frame of reference; when you can speak directly to someone’s experience, you can engage their interest, and there is no limit to what you can make them understand.
It has often been said that there is some virtue in being able to explain a concept in simple enough terms that your mother (or grandparents, or a barkeep, depending on who you listen to) can understand it. So, in that spirit, let’s use my mother as an example: she’s a middle-aged beekeeper from Devon, with no formal training in the sciences. She doesn’t have any interest in, say, research that uses machine learning to uncover hidden networks within social media – but she does know a hell of a lot about bees, and a handy analogy can bring those two worlds together. I might tell her it’s a computer program that could determine which of her bees had probably been in contact with which other bees behind her back.
It’s easy to communicate effectively with an audience of one – especially if it’s your mum – but engaging the public usually means audiences with higher volumes, and this can raise issues. Specifically, the more people you want to talk to, the more general your frame of reference has to be. At Research Media, some of our most difficult clients are those who want to reach everyone. When you say that your audience is everyone, you are necessarily being lazy; 89 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English, for a start. The fact is that a message to be read by ‘everyone’ may be heard by many, but will be too diluted to achieve any impact.
Another common stumbling block for researchers is falling back on communication methods that work for academic audiences. Too often, I come across scientists who are not prepared to give up (even for a moment) their project acronyms, their technical jargon and their citations. I won’t deny that these tools have their place; they are useful in communicating effectively and efficiently with your immediate colleagues. But the problem is that, put simply, your colleagues already know what you do – and this language won’t help anyone else get in on the action.
So, choose your audience wisely, as they should be at the centre of your communications strategy. When you aim to engage or to explain, begin by exploiting the commonalities between members of your audience; build your communications on shared and fundamental knowledge. Finally, avoid common mistakes that can distort your image of the people you are speaking to. The truth is that, complex as your work may be, it is for the benefit of the general populace – and it won’t be as far from their comprehension as you think.