Every scientist communicates their work. You communicate every time you write a paper, give a talk, or write a grant proposal. In those cases, the audience is very much like yourself. They’re other scientists doing similar work, or work in a related field.
When you start communicating beyond your own field, the audience becomes more difficult to define.
Who is the “General Public”?
It’s easy to lump everyone together as “the general public”, but very difficult to communicate to such an amorphous group. You wouldn’t give the exact same talk to a class of young children as you would to representatives of a company who are interested in possible applications of your work. Neither of them are your regular audience, and they both fall under the broad “general public” category, but they clearly need a different message.
And remember that many people who know nothing about your work are often experts in their own discipline. Whether they’re bankers or bakers, they are not a “layperson” or a “non-expert”, they just don’t have your specific expertise.
Science communication works best if you have a more narrow, defined audience. That way, you can tailor your communication to the audience. But how do you know who your audience is?
Get to know your audience
If you’re asked to give a talk somewhere, or if you’re interviewed by a journalist for a publication, you often have a defined audience. If you’re not sure who they are, you can ask the person who invited you. How familiar is this audience with your broad field of interest? Are they part of a well-defined community? What other topics are they interested in?
For example, you might be invited as expert speaker on a panel at an event. You can research the event and the other panellists to get a sense of who is likely to be in the audience. Don’t assume that scientists only get invited to science events! There are science tracks at music and arts festivals, and at science fiction conventions. If you get an invitation to speak, find out why the audience would be interested to hear from you.
Go where your audience is
If you would like to share some of your research results with an audience beyond your usual community, you’re going to have to find out where your ideal audience is likely to be. Some scientists have achieved success with just setting up a Twitter account and sharing interesting research there, but this certainly won’t work for everyone. Topics that do well on Twitter or other social media are those that are likely to be shared and talked about by many different people, or that have an existing community of interest with active participants on the platform.
If you’re hoping to reach a more specific audience with your work, you’re going to have to reach them where they are. Start by defining clearly who would be interested in your work, and then figure out where they hang out – both online and offline.
Is your work of interest to people in retirement communities? Or for children who love animals? Or for patients with a specific condition? Is your research location-specific, and would the local community want to hear about it? Does your work potentially affect researchers in another discipline? Have you run a study using volunteers who would be curious about the results? Was your project crowdfunded? Each of these groups has communities that bring them together. That’s where you can do the most effective science communication.
But I want to reach everyone!
Maybe your work does not have a specific audience, but you just want everyone to know about it. Instead of trying to reach everyone at once, think about your audience in terms of smaller groups. You can’t reach everyone individually, but can you reach people who then help you spread the message?
A good first step is working with your university media office or press office. They can help you figure out when your research is suitable to be sent to journalists. (That’s often tied to a published paper, but there can be other news hooks as well.)
You can also start looking for collaborators who can help you share your science. For example, if you want to talk to schools, don’t approach them all individually, but work with someone that is already connected to a lot of schools. That may be through your university’s public engagement office, or a local science festival.
Create personas to define your audience
Whether you’re giving a talk at a conference or are preparing a talk in a pub, you have to be able to define your audience clearly, so that you can focus your message. You can use a trick from marketing professionals and create “personas”.
Personas are character descriptions of what your audience is like. You can even give them a name, and be quite specific: “Alice is a student in another department, whose work slightly overlaps with yours”, “Bob is a retired physics teacher who regularly attends public science talks”, etc. Now you can focus your messaging at Alice and Bob instead of an anonymous crowd.
When you have a clear audience in mind, you can share your science much more effectively. Let me know if you need help figuring out your audience.