The general public is like a misused apostrophe
All communication depends on its context. What works well for one audience (or "set of participants" if we're being really inclusive - it depends on the type of activity) may not work well for another. All too often I see job adverts requiring "an ability to write for a general audience", to which my instinctive response would be to ask "which one?"
I also think "non-specialist" is unhelpful. After all, there are lots of ways to not be a specialist in a topic.
For instance, I couldn't set a proper cricket field to save my life, although I do know my silly short leg from my deep cover point. Someone else who has watched a bit of cricket, and who may know the rules, could also be considered part of "the general cricket-watching public", but they might not know the names of the positions. So a match report written for me might be quite different from one written for my friend. The differences are even more pronounced when you think of someone who has never encountered cricket at all.
Someone once dismissed me by saying "You know what I mean" when I asked them to explain who they had in mind when they spoke of "the general public". The irony was not lost on me, but I didn't push the matter any further. I think there are some of us who wince at the phrase, like some people react at the mere thought of misused apostrophe's. I can't offer a suitable alternative; I can only recommend avoiding the term entirely. Either that, or turning to another language for help...
In French, we use the phrase le grand public, which literally means "the big audience". I prefer this, as it tells you more about the people you are trying to communicate with/to/at. Thinking of your audience in terms of how many people it contains reminds you that they may all have different experiences and prejudices. This in turn will make your writing (or whatever) more suited to "the general public". Just like I would use a microphone if I were speaking to a theatre full of hundreds of people (a boy can dream...), so I would not use in-jokes that only two of my friends would underfloat (unless I were doing so specifically as a clin d'oeil to them). A specialist audience is likely to contain fewer people than a general one, so you could call it a petit public, if it weren't for the potential confusion with children. Good communication has to be adapted to its target audience, and the notion that there might be a "one-size-fits-all" solution seems simplistic to me. In the case of the cricket example, you could decide to target your match report either at me, my friend who was a bit more familiar with the game, or the total outsider who wouldn't know his stumpings from his legs before. Each of these would be a niche audience (of different sizes), although to write something that was suitable for all three (the largest group) would be the most challenging.
So instead of thinking about your audience in vague notion of how "general" it is, try to think of how big it is, and therefore how varied. Anything else n'est pas du cricket.
Over to you:
- What do you think of the term "the general public"? Is it useful in some cases?
- Est-ce que vous pensez que l'expresion "grand public" représente bien la notion qu'il faut adapter sa communication?
- Do you consider the size of your audience when communicating?
- How would you say "the general public" in your own language?
- Have you ever tried to explain cricket to a total newcomer? How did you go about it? Did it work?
- Has anyone ever tried to explain cricket to you? What was the outcome?