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Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) conference in Brisbane. The theme of the conference was ‘Research to Community’, so as far as science conferences go, there was a significant focus on matters of communication – from how operational forecasters convey tropical cyclone information, to using communication as a tool to secure research funding.

For a science communicator – and particularly one who works a great deal in climate and Earth sciences – it was a fantastic conference to attend. (Congratulations to the organisers on a great program!)

With so many sessions, conversations and presentations, what do I think was the key message as far as ‘Research to Community’ goes?

It comes down to one word, which came up more than any other in all of the communication-themed plenaries and presentations: audience.

David Schultz (author of Eloquent Science) perhaps put it best in his plenary Communicating Science: Lessons for Scientists, Forecasters, Educators, and Students when he said ‘Pity the audience’. This isn’t to say ‘feel sorry for’ the audience, so much as ‘feel for’ the audience; think about who you are communicating to, what they want to know and how you can tell them so they understand.

Rod Lamberts echoed this idea in his (7 am the morning after the conference dinner…) science communication workshop, when he said ‘Humans first’. All too often we forget that we’re trying to get through to other people, with their own lives, contexts, problems and predispositions.

Unfortunately, the science communication cart often goes before the horse: we start with the how (‘we need a brochure’, ‘let’s get on Twitter’, ‘we should set up a blog’, etc.) before we consider the who – the audience.

Cartoon featuring a horse pushing a cart as another horse looks on

Give your communication the best chance of success  by putting your horse and cart in the right order:

  1. Work out why you want to communicate your science. What is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. Determine who you need to reach to achieve your purpose. Is it the public, industry, the government, or a sub-set of one of these groups? The more specific you can be in working this out, the easier the remaining steps are.
  3. Work out what you are going to say. Make your message accessible for the group you identified in Step 2. It should be relevant, interesting and understandable to be engaging.
  4. Determine how you’ll get the message across. What format/channels/media are the people identified in Step 2 going to use.

Always put your audience first. It’s not always easy, but it will help you structure your communication activities, and it will give your audience the chance to be as excited by your work as you are.

I’m so glad that four-year-old Lucas Whitely (and his dad) contacted NASA for some help with Lucas’s homework. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t get to watch, enjoy and learn from this:

Why is NASA engineer Ted Garbeff’s video response to Lucas so great? Because it’s all about Lucas.

It’s not about how great NASA is (although they certainly picked up some PR credit as a result of this video, which did the internet rounds when it was originally posted). It’s not even about how clever Ted is (although as a research engineer in experimental fluid physics at NASA’s Ames Research Center, he obviously is). It’s about answering a child’s questions in an interesting and engaging way.

The key strength of Ted’s response is that it explains some fundamental ideas about science and technology in simple, relatable terms without dumbing it down. It doesn’t use complicated words when simpler ones are more than adequate. It uses examples that a four-year-old English child would understand – to the point of using pounds and pence instead of dollars and cents.

(In fact,  I think Ted’s explanation of counting by starting with 10 (fingers), then 100 (pence), then 1000 (grains of sand in a spoonful) before talking about really big numbers is elegant.)

The other strength of the video is its authenticity. High production values have their place, but not in a video message to a four-year-old. This really is just Ted answering some questions about space, and telling Lucas about his fun job where he gets to play with cool toys and learn about the world.

So, lessons from Ted:

  • Remember who your audience is, and speak to them in terms they understand.
  • Explain abstract concepts using concrete, real world examples that your audience can relate to.
  • Explaining a complex idea using simple words and concepts is not dumbing it down (or certainly shouldn’t be).
  • There are many opportunities when more can be achieved for an organisation or brand by authentic, honest communication than staged, corporate messaging.