Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Want data to work for public audiences? Think like a calendar

This month, some new data on climate science caught my eye, precisely because the writer had a calendar in mind. The headline read: If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month.

That transformed data from dry to dinner-table-discussion-worthy. Why? You could have said exactly the same thing this way: "Temperatures have been above average every month for the past 27 years." Or, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did, "This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature." Both do the job accurately, but don't put the data in terms of the audience's age, as the author did.  Most of us won't immediately grasp the scope of 332 months, frankly. But telling us how we relate to the data matters. In this case, the headline doesn't just reach those 27 and under, but those of us with more perspective, who may have plenty of 27-year-olds or 27-wannabes in our lives. In effect, you've given us a yardstick against which we can measure our own experience, and relate to the data.

When I'm training experts and scientists who wield lots of data, it's often a surprise to them that they need to think of the audience first, instead of what they have to say. After all, these smart folks are loaded with content. Shouldn't the problem be how to fit it all in? But in fact, taking the time to consider your audience, and its calendar, can take a presentation or speech from good to great. On that imaginary calendar, you want to juxtapose your data's progression with the audience's age and situation. It's a great way to ensure that the expert isn't making assumptions about what the audience knows or has been taught.

In Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public, Cornelia Dean shares even more examples. And as this was written a few years ago, now, even these are slightly out of date:
No one over thirty today learned about stem cells in high school or college--the field was too new. Similarly, antimissile defense, privatizing fisheries and even climate change were not in the curriculum when most American adults were in high school.
If, as most experts are, your experts are focused on their research and not on the wider demographics of the audiences they wish to reach, communicators may need to fill in the blanks for experts on public audiences, by staying current with and sharing data about those audiences. It's just one of the tactics we'll explore at my January 10, 2013 workshop, Be an Expert on Working with Experts, where you can learn about the default communications styles experts and scientists use, as well as how to use data and demos to help them communicate more effectively with non-technical audiences. You get a discount for registering early, by December 21.

And if you're a communicator who wants to figure out how to make the case for training your experts, I've got a lunch-and-learn session on that topic coming up December 7. Part brainstorm, part briefing, this session will give you data, ideas and the rationales you need to make the case for communications training. But hurry up: Registration closes November 30.

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