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Three steps for breaking out of the Sci Comm echo-chamber

Authors | Researchers
Three steps for breaking out of the Sci Comm echo-chamber

Science communication is generally consumed by people with at least some interest in your topic. How can you go beyond that to reach the unconverted?


In a recent article, Sci Comm expert Craig Cormick warned that “One of the most common faults in science communication [1] is talking to fans of science and thinking you have reached the wider community.” Whilst we often hope to reach a broad public with ScienceCommunication, much of the time we end up simply preaching to the already converted. It is only natural. Audiences are drawn to things that they like, not the opposite. 

A 2018 study based on data from Switzerland [2] attempted to divide up the population according to their perceptions of science. They categorized the different audiences of science communication into four main types. These groups varied from “Sciencephiles, [those] with a strong interest in science”, to “Disengaged, [those] who are not interested in science”. The latter category contained people who, in addition to paying little attention to scientific topics, were also very wary of science too. Elsewhere in the world such as in the USA [3], similar groups of science-phobes have also been identified. 

As a scientist, it is easy to forget that outside of your circle people do not always recognize the profound impact that research has on humanity. The problem, though, is that science affects everyone - not just science fans. Hence, we owe it to the world to step outside the boundaries of the already converted. But, as I’m sure you are already aware, this audience is a much tougher sell. Nevertheless, here are three things you can do to increase your chances of success. 

#1 Bring your science to them

If you want to reach the unconverted, you must first find a way to meet the people you are aiming for. To do that, you need to recognize who you are actually talking about when you decide you want to communicate with the “public”. Once you know who they are, then you can identify where they are and take your Sci Comm to them. 

In 2019, the first “On the Moon Again” project saw thousands of people from around the world take their telescopes out onto the streets in 77 countries. Each positioned in different locations - parks, sidewalks, town centers – the idea was to attract passers-by, giving them the chance to look at the moon close up. For many of them, it was a rare opportunity to engage with astronomy, which they surely would have missed had the organizers not brought the telescopes to them.  

You may also want to target virtual places where you know your audience gathers. For young people, YouTube is a great place to find them. A recent study carried out by the OCDE [4] in France showed that 75% of the 1000 15-25 year-olds questioned, visit the online platform daily. As a result, as many as 4 out of 10 watch science videos at least once a week; some of whom are not particularly “fans” of science. 

#2 Don’t explain, entertain

In a world where “impact” and “outcomes” are high priorities, we can often lose sight of the notion that pushing research into the limelight is no easy task. When targeting non-science fans, the mere fact that someone saw your tweet is sometimes a win in itself. Go you! A listener may not walk away from your podcast understanding all the elements in string theory. But hold on, they listened to your podcast all the way through? That is a massive win. They will surely have at least retained some of what you said, and it means they enjoyed themselves too. 

Podcasts like The Infinite Monkey Cage, with Brian Cox and Robin Ince do this really well. Anyone can have fun whilst listening and learn some stuff along the way. Scientists have even started to turn their hand to stand-up with projects like the Science Comedy Show. Applying techniques like these doesn’t mean you are lowering your expectations, it simply implies that you are aligning your Sci Comm style with entertainment, which is about as accessible to everyone as you can get. 

#3 Speak up, not down

As passionate lovers of science, we sometimes forget that most people know much less about certain areas than we do. Consequently, it is easy to sound patronizing when talking about your topic of predilection, if only by accident. No one likes the feeling of being spoken down to or having conversation topics thrust upon them over dinner. Nor does anyone enjoy being reminded that you are smarter, wiser or more knowledgeable about an issue than most. 

Consequently, it is worth bearing in mind that facts have rights and wrongs. Values, less so. In an article for The Conversation, Prof. John Besley affirms that there are “many things you probably can’t change about your audience through communication [5] – like an individual’s core values – although these can affect how what you communicate gets interpreted.” That means adapting your approach to the person in front of you, whilst being respectful of their knowledge level and beliefs. Speak up when the time is right, whilst keeping a neutral approach.  

Apply yourself

Breaking barriers is never without risk of falling on deaf ears. Reaching a truly wide audience means applying yourself in a different way and adapting to who those people are. Take yourself over to their side; go where they are, provide them with entertainment and respect their values. 

References

[1] One of the most common faults in science communication Nature, Career column 29 January 2020. 

[2] The different audiences of science communication: A segmentation analysis of the Swiss population’s perceptions of science and their information and media use patterns. Schäfer MS, Füchslin T, Metag J, Kristiansen S, Rauchfleisch A. Public Underst Sci., 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662517752886.

[3] Audiences for Science Communication in the United States,John C. Besley  Environmental Communication, (2018) 12:8, 1005-1022, https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2018.1457067.

[4] YouTube, grand pourvoyeur de contenus scientifiques pour les jeunes, https://www.actualitte.com/article/monde-edition/youtube-grand-pourvoyeur-de-contenus-scientifiques-pour-les-jeunes/99007.

[5] What it means to ‘know your audience’ when communicating about science. The Conversation, April 2019, https://theconversation.com/what-it-means-to-know-your-audience-when-communicating-about-science-111147.


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