Education, Early Career, Outreach

Science Outreach 101: Know Your Audience

Why are you interested in science outreach? Is it so you can broaden the impact of your research? To ensure that policymakers have access to the most current scientific knowledge? To accomplish the “Broader Impacts” in your grant proposals? To get people excited about scientific research?

No matter your goals, effective science outreach fosters a connection between you and your audience. It gets them interested in the research you do. And regardless of the type of outreach you’re planning, you can be successful by staying relevant, value-centric, and by speaking in a shared language to your audience.

Make your research relevant to people’s lives

As scientists, we’re trained to focus on the importance of concepts, theories, and data. However, most nonscientists are focused on people, and what convinces them that your research is important is how you connect it to people’s daily lives. Always ask yourself, ‘Why should my audience care about this? Why is it relevant to them?’

Example: You research nutrient cycling in wetlands. When giving a Science Café talk about your research, instead of focusing on the steps of the nitrogen cycle, you decide to open with a personal story about doing your field work in a wetland, and to talk about how these cycles are affected by human activity. You bring it home by showing how different fertilizers affect these wetlands, and by giving people suggestions for nature-friendly lawn products.

Consider their values and beliefs

Studies1 have shown that information alone does not always change people’s attitudes towards science. If that information contradicts someone’s misinformed but dearly held beliefs, it can actually increase confidence in that misinformation (a phenomenon called the backfire effect2,3). Facts alone can’t always reach people; those facts must be presented in a way that doesn’t threaten your audience’s worldview.

Think about your audience’s background. What is their previous knowledge? What are their values? Connect to them through the ideas and things they care about. This can apply to groups ranging from climate change skeptics to middle schoolers.

Example: When speaking to a group of environmental activists about your research on the effects of sea level rise on salt marsh ecosystems, you could focus on things like habitat loss. If you were speaking about the same topic to a group of businesspeople, you could focus instead on the economic value of salt marshes.

Speak to them in a ‘shared language’

Respect your audience’s strengths and limitations. Specialized terminology (a.k.a. jargon) serves an important role in science, but someone who hasn’t spent years studying crabs likely won’t know what a megalopa is, and you shouldn’t expect them to. Science outreach isn’t “dumbing down” your research, but rather a starting a conversation about it in a shared language.

Example: You’re researching seasonal hypoxia in freshwater lakes. When you participate in a public science day at your local museum, you talk to people about how low levels of oxygen make it hard for fish and other critters to ‘breathe’ and save the jargon for more in-depth conversations.

Keep in mind that an audience of middle school students and one of policymakers bring different levels of background knowledge to this conversation. A great way to tailor your outreach to the audience is to involve them from the beginning—engage with your audience and listen to what they have to say. Listening is crucial to effective communication, and will give you a better idea of how knowledgeable your audience is (as well as what they’re interested in).

Example: In a smaller setting, such as a school visit or science festival, ask people what they know about your research or involve them in an interactive activity that lets you gauge what they know.

  • If you’re preparing for a classroom visit, you could ask the teacher what his or her students have already studied.
  • If you’re meeting with policymakers, find out ahead of time what aquatic issues are already on their agenda.

In contrast, if you’re giving a public talk or writing an article, your audience will be larger and harder to engage with—though you can and should still involve audience members if possible. Think about who is likely to make up your audience ahead of time (College students? Families with kids? Other scientists?), and gauge how you can best keep everyone engaged.

By utilizing these communication mindsets, your outreach efforts will be more effective—people will walk away more interested, more knowledgeable, and with a better sense of why science is important.

References 

1 Sturgis, P. and Allum, Nick, 2004. “Science in Society: Re-Evaluating the Deficit Model of Public Attitudes.” Public Understanding of Science, 13(1), 55-74. doi: 10.1177/0963662504042690 

2 Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., Cook, J., 2012. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131. doi: 10.1177/1529100612451018

3 Konnikova, Maria. “I Don’t Want to Be Right.” The New Yorker 16 May 2014.