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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Monday, August 26, 2013

From Their Perspective

Most of us know the old adage “know thy audience.”  The critical question is slightly different - what does your audience want? 

I recently participated in a discussion on science communication, moderated by Gail Scowcroft of Discovery of Sound in the Sea (I highly recommend their website - more about them in future posts). Ms. Scowcraft defined three classes of audience member that we might interact with during a talk (or for written communication): learners, stakeholders, and the media.

As scientists, most of us are most comfortable interacting with learners.  This includes other scientists, students, anyone seeking information for the sake of knowledge.  It’s a noble goal, but there are other equally important goals sought by other groups, and we need to consider these needs and goals in order to get our message across effectively.

Stakeholders are those with something to gain (or lose!) based on the information we provide – they have skin in the game.  For the recent conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life (where this discussion on science communication occurred), the stakeholders were regulators and oil company officials.  These parties didn’t just want information; they wanted to know how to apply this information to their work in regulating underwater noise, or in mitigating effects of noise during underwater oil exploration projects. As scientists, it’s up to us to help them understand the implications of our work and how it affects these stakeholder groups.  I’m not suggesting that we play politics (although sometimes we should!), but that we consider policy and business aspects of our research, and speak accordingly.

Similarly, the media have very different expectations from us. They aren’t looking for lectures; they’re looking for sound bites! What’s the one really important/interesting/sexy thing about our work, and how can we (or they) convey it in 60 seconds or less? Journalists are looking to sell stories, so for us to be effective, we need to give them a story to sell.

Who’s in your audience? Next time you’re preparing for a talk, or writing something that will see the light of day beyond a research journal, consider your audience and their needs.  Sometimes providing information isn’t enough.

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