What it means to ‘know your audience’ when communicating about science

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.

Choosing to take part in a particular event suggests certain things about attendees. USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr, CC BY-SA

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.

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.

Audiences aren’t obligated to hang on your every word. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

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.