Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Engaging audiences: A little extra effort please

07 Aug 2018
Whether talking one to one, using social media, or announcing results in a media release, first consider why the audience should care.

By Ruth Francis

Earlier this year, I was invited to a reception aimed at encouraging researchers, journalists and communication professionals to network. During the evening, I found myself on the receiving end of a couple of conversations. The kind of conversations where someone talks about him or herself, their work and achievements without asking any questions about the other person. 

Although their research is probably fascinating, neither academic showed any awareness of my level of understanding or interest in the topic. They seemed to assume I would be intrigued simply because they were. On both occasions, after a few minutes I made my excuses and moved on to more engaging groups. 

This happens all the time; audiences switch channel, click away, read something else. In school, if a teacher is less than captivating we have no choice but to stay in the classroom; in adult life, we can turn away and do something else. 

How can you compete with the noise and hold the attention of your audience? The thing I think matters most is to think about why others should care. I don’t mean peers, I mean broadly speaking, why should the public care about your research? Sure, explain why it is interesting to you, but give some context to help bridge knowledge gaps. 

For example, a genome researcher told me last week that the detailed genomic map he was about to publish would help to breed plants that are more resistant to climatic conditions and help to feed a growing population. He told me how researchers and breeders could use the new data to zoom in on areas of interest and how they would figure out if there were genes there that can deliver desired outcomes. He could have told me about a fascinating loci on chromosome 15, but he gauged his audience and made me feel included. 

Even if you work on basic research that does not have immediate applications, the majority of people are generally curious and will give you a chance to explain your work. But no one likes being talked at or made to feel stupid. Be careful to avoid using jargon, which can cause people to immediately feel lost and disengage. Ask about their experience with the subject, listen and then adjust your response. Try to pique their interest with a brief story or analogy that shows why they should care. 

Whether it’s a conversation or a press release, if you give people a tangible reason to care, you might be surprised just how willing they are to grapple with the detail and learn something new. 

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.