Communication 101

5 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

If we’re going to be talking about science communication, it's worthwhile to have a brief overview of communication basics. I have a hunch I'll be linking back to this post a lot.

Step One: Know Your Audience

Who, exactly, are you trying to reach? This is the first step because it will affect everything else you do. For example, if you are an entomologist, and you want to reach an audience of your fellow entomologists, you can write in technical language that might baffle anyone else. If you want to reach scientists in other fields, you’ll have to tone down the entomology jargon, but you can assume familiarity with the scientific process. And if you want to reach, say, politicians, you can assume nothing. I often think of my audience as “the intelligent non-expert.” This enables me to reach a fairly broad audience, including all of the groups I just mentioned.

Note: Don’t say you’re trying to reach the “general public.” It’s a meaningless term. After all, are you really writing something that targets kindergarteners, astrophysicists and the Flat Earth Society (along with everyone else)?

Step Two: Set Goals

Now that you’ve defined your audience, what do you want them to do? It could be as specific as wanting registered voters to contact Congress about their support for NASA funding, or it could be as general as wanting people to understand the importance of biodiversity. Maybe you simply want to disseminate research findings that you think are interesting in an effort to get people excited about science. It’s important to note that the more specific your goals are, the easier it will be to tell if you’re reaching them.

For example, as a science writer and public information officer (i.e., flack) at a public university, I usually have multiple goals for anything I write. Among other things, I want to: raise the profile of the institution in a positive way by highlighting faculty research; draw attention to federally funded research (which makes federal funding agencies happy); attract potential students and faculty to our research programs; reach researchers at other institutions who may be interested in formal or informal collaboration with our faculty; and make our students and alumni feel good about the cool work being done at their alma mater.

(David Wescott wrote a post recently about issues related to science and politics, and laid out some very specific – and creative – goals for addressing them. He makes a good argument for the need to set specific goals. You can read it here.)

Step Three: Metrics

In short, you need to have some way of measuring whether you are making progress towards your goals. I’ve touched on this to a certain extent in my post on unconventional metrics, so I won’t go into an enormous amount of detail here, but this is important. Metrics let you know how well (or how poorly) your communication efforts are working.

A basic metric might be the number of visitors who come to your blog. But while getting readers is great (thanks for reading this!), it may not actually help you meet your goal. The closer you can tie your metrics to your goals, the better off you’ll be. For example, if your goal is to recruit people to participate in a citizen science study, your metric should be the number of people who have signed up.

Step Four: Evaluate and Adjust

Once you have established metrics, you need to use them. Is your communication plan working? If not, what should you do about it?

Let’s stick with the citizen science idea. If you wanted to enlist 750 participants, and you’ve enrolled 500 in less than a week, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’ve only gotten 36 new participants, you may want to re-evaluate your communication approach.

For example, if you were relying solely on a Facebook page to drive traffic to your citizen science project, you need to branch out. Try contacting reporters in your target markets, to see if they might be interested in a story on your work (yes, this works). Create a fun video on your project, and push it out via YouTube and related social media networks (and beg – er, urge – your friends into retweeting it ad nauseam). As FDR once said, in a completely different context, “Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something.”

I might add, above all, try something new.


3 Responses to “Communication 101”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    I think those advices mainly apply to experienced and professional communicators. I don't believe newbies should actually be too bothered about audience, metrics, etc. Instead, their focus should be quality. Quality is gold, as you mentioned in one of your previous posts. Thinking too much about other parameters may make writing more of a chore than it should be and may ultimately discourage potential writers.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I agree that this advice is primarily for PIOs, etc. (reporters don't have the same issues). However, I think it's definitely important for bloggers, et al., to think about these issues. For example, a key question that I think people should ask themselves is: "Why am I doing this?" Why are you blogging? Why are you joining Twitter? What do you hope to get out of it? There doesn't need to be a higher mission -- you could just be hoping to expand your circle of acquaintances in the research community. But if you're not asking yourself these questions, then you're just killing time.

    For example, you mention a focus on quality. Quality of what? If you're talking about writing, then you have to consider audience. Good writing means effective, engaging communication via the written word. And it's impossible to judge whether writing is effective or engaging unless you're thinking about the audience you're writing for. E.g., if you're writing about astronomy, children are a very different audience from astrophysicists, who are a very different audience from the amateur stargazer.

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