Communication

Science Communication and ‘Knowing Thy Audience’

May 28, 2019 2141

Audience crowd

Communication experts love to tell people to know their audience, but it is not always clear what they’re meant to know.

Knowing someone’s age, education and gender is nice. So too is knowing context about economic, educational, cultural and ideological background. These are typically what the two of us hear when we’ve asked science communication trainers what they think the expression means.

Knowing such things are helpful, but there’s a lot more a strategic communicator might want to know.

Our own ongoing research on strategic science communication objectives suggests some more targeted pieces of information that could help communicators – whether scientists or anyone else – effectively share their message.

Know your audience by picking your audience

To start, if you’re being strategic, you should know something about your audience because you should have picked who you’re communicating with based on your goals.

The Conversation logo
This article by John C. Besley and Anthony Dudo originally appeared at The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “What it means to ‘know your audience’ when communicating about science”

In general, the hope is that experts like the scientists we study would have shifted valuable time or resources from their regular work to communication because there’s some sort of behavior they want to see in some specific group or groups. The behavior could be individual – things such as drinking less, buying greener products, choosing a science career – or civic – behaviors such as supporting, opposing or disregarding an issue.

No communicator – including scientists – should spend limited time, money and opportunity on audiences that aren’t a priority given their goals. It will rarely make sense to spend resources trying to get an arch-liberal to donate to the National Rifle Association or a diehard lover of science to embrace science even more.

Once you know what you want to accomplish and who you want to accomplish it with, you’re a lot closer to figuring out what you need to know about your audience.

What does your audience think and feel?

The next step is figuring something out about the target audience’s beliefs, feelings or way of framing a topic. It is these beliefs, feelings and frames that can change and it is these changes that will increase the odds an audience will meaningfully consider your hoped-for behavior.

The most common types of beliefs that the scientists we study like to share are those related to the knowledge they’re creating through their research. This might be something about new evidence connecting how rising greenhouse gases are changing the climate, a lack of connection between vaccines and risk, or any other new finding. This preference seems to stem from scientists’ belief that their audience has a crucial gap in its knowledge or way of thinking.

Increasing basic knowledge sometimes gets dismissed in science communication circles; there’s little evidence that information-focused initiatives work very well. More and more facts rarely produce substantial behavioral changes. Worse, although researchers haven’t carefully tested it, anyone who’s sat through a boring lecture can probably attest to the fact that sharing too much technical detail can turn an audience off.

On the other hand, most audiences probably expect to hear about experts’ work and so experts likely need to share some information about what they’re finding or they risk failing to meet people’s expectations.

Just as importantly, there are many other facts beyond those associated with technical knowledge that communicators could ethically want people to come to believe.

For the topics we study, it might be helpful to really know, for example, if an audience believes the research team is competent, honest, caring, open and similar to them when it comes to values. If this is not how the scientists are perceived, it’s important to know so the communicator can make communication choices that give the audience a chance to learn a bit more about the team – assuming they do embody these characteristics.

This might mean sharing a bit about their credentials and the sophisticated effort that went into the pertinent research, the motives that drive the team or what they do to make sure they’re always listening to others’ views.

These trust-related communication objectives may be particularly important for making it more likely that someone will pay attention and think about what you have to say. For example, audience members may lack the motivation to truly listen to someone that they believe is dishonest or incompetent.

Similarly, if the goal is to promote behaviors, it helps to know what the audience thinks about those behaviors. Do they believe in the risks or benefits of what the research suggests? Which do they think about most? And what do they think their family and friends think and do – what social psychologists call subjective and descriptive norms? Do they think they even have the ability to do what’s being suggested or believe that doing so will make a difference?

It may also be important to know how the audience feels, what emotions are driving behavior and how they mentally frame the issue.

You can’t know everything about your audience

Of course it’s impossible to know everything about your audience. You can make educated bets – and you can also ask for help from a communication expert or longtime leader in your organization or a group you belong to. In our area of study, these might be the public information officers at universities or scientific societies. They want to help and the good ones are constantly tracking stakeholder views on various issues you might want to address.

There are also many things you probably can’t change about your audience through communication – like an individual’s core values – although these can affect how what you communicate gets interpreted. And that’s why you have to prioritize by being clear on your goals and starting with an understanding of your audience. Communication theory and formative research are meant to help with such strategizing.


John C. Besley is the Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations at Michigan State University. Anthony Dudo is an associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Texas at Austin.

View all posts by John C. Besley and Anthony Dudo

Related Articles

Second Edition of ‘The Evidence’ Examines Women and Climate Change
Bookshelf
March 29, 2024

Second Edition of ‘The Evidence’ Examines Women and Climate Change

Read Now
Did the Mainstream Make the Far-Right Mainstream?
Communication
February 27, 2024

Did the Mainstream Make the Far-Right Mainstream?

Read Now
The Use of Bad Data Reveals a Need for Retraction in Governmental Data Bases
Communication
February 1, 2024

The Use of Bad Data Reveals a Need for Retraction in Governmental Data Bases

Read Now
Safiya Noble on Search Engines
Social Science Bites
January 8, 2024

Safiya Noble on Search Engines

Read Now
Did Turing Miss the Point? Should He Have Thought of the Limerick Test?

Did Turing Miss the Point? Should He Have Thought of the Limerick Test?

David Canter is horrified by the power of readily available large language technology.

Read Now
The Silver Lining in Bulk Retractions

The Silver Lining in Bulk Retractions

This is the opening from a longer post by Adya Misra, the research integrity and inclusion manager at Social Science Space’s parent, Sage. The full post, which addresses the hows and the whys of bulk retractions in Sage’s academic journals, appears at Retraction Watch.

Read Now
Fake News, Misinformation Focus of New Microsite

Fake News, Misinformation Focus of New Microsite

A new Information Literacy Microsite from sage can be your new home for pressing research on the digital age and the ways to combat mis-, dis-, and misinformation.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments