Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Do you understand the public whose understanding you seek?

Back when I was directing communications for the American Chemical Society, a new board president--chaired professor, holder of many patents, well-regarded lab director--told me he wanted to launch a major initiative to combat the public's lack of understanding of chemistry's benefits. "The public doesn't understand what chemists do and they don't hold them in high regard," he told me.  So I asked a question that derailed the whole project.

"Where are the data?"

I asked because, having watched scientists call for more public understanding or appreciation of science for many years, I knew that the existing data suggested two things: Public understanding of science has been consistently low, and public respect for scientists has been consistently high for many decades.  We went on, by the way, to work with Harris Interactive to confirm those data for chemists, and found the public was both knowledgeable and held the profession in high regard.  We turned to a new task: Educating chemists about the public's nice views about them.

Today, in the "Communicating Science" workshops I facilitate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we start the day thinking about the audience--something that startles many of the participating scientists.  By the end of the day, the scientists are grilling each other about their intended audiences and fine-tuning their views of what the "general public" is.

Now the "other AAAS," the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with support from the Sloan Foundation, is asking "Do scientists understand the public?" and releasing a report at a June 29 event here in Washington.  (I'll be attending and will report back on the findings here.)  To my mind, it's the question that needs to come first when communicating with a public audience.

This isn't a lesson just for scientists, but for any professional group, business or individual who wants to share something with a public audience.  Most people start with what they want to say, what they see, and what they've heard, rather than look for research and data that can shed light on whether your experience matches that of a larger population, or the specific one you want to reach.  Because the facts you learn about your audience can shape your message, your method of approach or even whether you should try communicating with a particular group, put the audience first in your communications strategy.

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