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Communicating science and inspiring audiences of different ages

Authors | Researchers
Communicating science and inspiring audiences of different ages

Children, teenagers, parents and grandparents; science can inspire people of all ages.

Shrek, the 2001 movie produced by Dreamworks was hailed by experts as a “turning point” in animated films [1] because of its appeal to both children and their parents. If you have seen the film as a grown-up then you may have noticed that this is because there are two clear subtexts: one aimed at children and the other, adults. Of course, this did not happen by accident. Like the producers of Shrek, as a science communicator you are likely to come across audiences of mixed ages too. The main reason for this is that children and young people rarely come alone. 

For example, national schemes across the world, such as the French science week called “La Fete de la Science”, encourage scientists to take the time to chat with the public about their research. At such events, audiences are essentially made up of young people or children who are accompanied by their parents, grandparents, older siblings or teachers. Knowing how to adjust your approach to appeal to these different age groups is a crucial skill when dealing with mixed audiences.  

Choose to inspire

When communicating science to the general public of any age, “to be inspired”, is generally somewhere at the top of the list. A 2013 EU study [2] found that the main motivation for children to take part in science outreach activities is because they are “…interesting and you can get enthusiastic about something.”

Your audience will, without a doubt, want to learn something new and exciting that makes them see the world, at least a little, differently. I always advise to stick to “inspiring”, rather than “explaining” as it helps steer the tone well away from “patronizing”. Inspiring people keeps us on the same level, an important factor for any age group. 

And a great way to inspire is to appeal to the senses. If you can create a demo, bring in a piece of your lab or show a video of something original, then it helps generate a lived experience that will make more of an impact than words alone. When working on a written piece, you can achieve this by prioritizing action verbs, like “to drive”, “to throw” or “to climb”. 

For young whippersnappers

Keeping an audience engaged can be difficult at the best of times. And when it comes to science activities for kids [3], it can be even more complex. As a rough guide, children just starting out in primary school may only be able to focus on an activity for around 10 minutes or so. Whereas, by the time they are ready to move on to secondary school, they can pay attention for closer to an hour. This means that the younger your audience, the more regularly you should change activities to keep them engaged [4]. 

Also, particularly when communicating to young people, you need to be pretty strict with yourself about time management. You are responsible for structuring your talk or workshop.  Of course, if you want to inspire then you need to adapt to their needs, which may mean digressing from your planned activities based on questions or topics they find particularly interesting. But be careful to avoid going off on tangents; children can be very good at pulling discussions towards things they want to talk about, rather than what you had planned!

If your audience is made up of teenagers, then you are in luck. Another EU survey from 2008 [5] showed that two thirds of young people (15-25 years old) are interested in news about science and technology. This can be helpful, as both spectators and readers will pay more attention if they already care about science. Although, watch out as this also means that their expectations will be higher; it takes more clout to inspire somebody with new information who already knows a lot about your topic. 

For those who are advanced in years

The older age bracket may seem like it should be an easier win, but there are nonetheless different challenges. You will probably find that anyone past retirement age will come with a willingness to listen to you, but with a worldview that is more set-in-stone than younger audiences. You will need to be both clear and convincing if you are to shake off some of the myths or misconceptions that have been drilled into them over the years. 

Moreover, back in the day, school science was different to what is taught now. So, terms like “molecules”, “evolution” or “DNA” may not be so evident to a more mature audience. I have often been surprised with the amount of knowledge that children may have about complicated topics or terminology in comparison to their accompanying adult. Try and bear this in mind. You can even play on that interaction and call upon the kids to explain something to the grown-ups. Again, that helps even the playing field, keeping everyone on the same level. 

To conclude, old or young, a general public audience wants above all to be inspired. Think about what excites you about your work and then build it into a talk which is suitable for your audience. But most of all, let yourself be surprised. The greatest thing, for me, about science outreach is engaging with people and creating a dialogue, which will happen organically if you let it. Enjoy. 


[1]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8415003.stm. Accessed January 20, 2020.

[2]https://agentmajeur.com/science-workshop-kids/. Accessed January 21, 2020.

[3]https://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM1203(2013)C04.pdf. Accessed January 20, 2020.

[4]https://www.rachaelebonoan.com/single-post/2017/05/24/9-tips-for-communicating-science-to-children. Accessed January 22, 2020.

[5]https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/flash/fl_239_sum_en.pdf. Accessed January 22, 2020.

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