The general public is like a misused apostrophe

13 June 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science, speaking science

A crowd of people

Is this the general public? You may notice these people all have a few things in common.

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.

Cricket field positions

Cricket field positions. And you thought science was full of jargon. Credit: Wikipedia user stevage.

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?

20 Responses to “The general public is like a misused apostrophe”

  1. Marianne Reply | Permalink

    I watched the Ashes in... 2009? When we won it, simply because I had nothing else at all to do that Summer. I didn't find it particularly taxing to learn the rules (having paid little to no attention up to that point) but I suppose that's partly because of how I learn best - observing people who know what they're doing, the rules tend to become self-apparent.

    While in my head I know how to bowl a cricket ball from watching bowlers for hours, when I tried to do it, my limbs did not wish to co-operate. Frustrating.

    Anyway, I think 'general public' can be useful in some contexts, but if your goal is to give someone an idea of who they're writing/speaking for, then it's a bit of a useless phrase. More information needed.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      That sounds like how i picked up ice hockey - though I think the commentary on that is more intuitive than cricket. Perhaps the faster-moving sport needs clearer description - no need to waffle on between actions.

  2. Jamie Gallagher Reply | Permalink

    I don't mind the phrase the general public as a broad term. Science festivals are for the general public. Next you have to take the public en masse and filter a bit more. When I design a show I tend not to use the phase. I wouldn't sell a show to a sci fest as being for the general public. I tend to go with "family audience" or "scientifically interested but non expert adults" or a conferece is "expert audience"
    To me the general public is too big a target audience and most communicators should limit it down, even in their own mind.

    As for asking a Scotsman about cricket, you may as well ask me for tanning advice.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Jamie - so the definition of "general public" is itself different depending on context? This field of ours is so full of moving targets... I can see how a festival might be for the general public, with individual shows being for sub-sets.

  3. Jalees Rehman Reply | Permalink

    Hi Alex, Thanks for this thought-provoking post! I have used the the expressions "general public", "broad readership" or "non-specialist audience" interchangeably because I also cannot think of any suitable term. I know that I use a different style and language depending on my audience: stem cell biologists are able to understand stem cell jargon such as pluripotency regulators or asymmetric cell division, whereas other biologists or physicians may need an explanation for each of these terms.

    I see my audience as a continuum, with varying degrees of specialist knowledge. general public" refers to a very broad audience that can contain stem cell biologists, physicists, plumbers, bank executives, teachers, etc. and it forces me to adapt my vocabulary and style accordingly.

    I would expect the same from an a cricket expert, who would use different terminologies when style of commentary when addressing cricket fans / experts versus novices.

  4. Jamie Gallagher Reply | Permalink

    Exactly. The phrase general public may as well be replaces with "human beings". The general public are just people together with no unifying theme. If your target audience is human beings- have a rethink.

    • Sam Askin Reply | Permalink

      I think there are instances (and plenty of them) where the general public can be a useful term and an applicable one. Considering especially, if you refer to "the general public" you often make reference to a broad audience's reaction, participation etc. in an event or activity of some kind. Within that broader audience sub-groups will react/participate differently, and it is from there that the term then becomes useless. There has to be a starting point though, and often the idea is to start as broad as possible!

  5. Micky Reply | Permalink

    In Italian, you could use the expression: "Il pubblico generale", I believe... Though is sounds a bit weird in my mind.
    Thinking about it, we have another really cool word which is "divulgare". It means: to make something public, to share something with the public. It comes from "volgo", which means "the people"... same root of the word "vulgar", in English.
    We would refer to talks, articles, etc that are targeting the general public as "materiale divulgativo".

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Micky! In French we also have the word divulgation, and also médiation which both more-or-less mean communication, though there are some subtle differences in some contexts.

  6. Susanna Reply | Permalink

    Interesting topic. I've never thought about this much since I tend to only speak to more specialist audiences and not very often.
    Anyway, Swedish lesson of the day: the public = allmänheten, the general public = den breda allmänheten which literally means "the broad public" which to me always brings to mind a spectra of abilities; ranging from the person sitting at the front row pointing out your mistakes to the people who has stopped listening since they don't understand what you are talking about anymore.

  7. Noby Reply | Permalink

    I agree with the sentiments here, it's a bit broad to use 'general public'. It's almost over labeling, as if to say there are scientists and then there is everyone else.
    I have used the term in the past out of convenience, but I try not to now. At least define an age-bracket or an area of interest (ie 18-35yr old beer drinkers). I think you lose a lot if there is no commonality in your audience. I gave a research presentation the other day and all of my (awesome) Game of Thrones references were lost on the older academics. Consequently, there was an age divide in how much they liked the presentation

    But the size of the audience definitely impacts how you are going to communicate. I'm organising a show right now, which will be performed in front of two sizes- 300 people and 50people. The presentation style, demos chosen, props used for the 300 person crowd is quite different to the 50 person crowd. The more people, the less intimate and in some ways, personal, you can make your performance.

    To answer the last questions, I think I hate cricket...

  8. David James Reply | Permalink

    Part of my job and on my blog is communicating with the "general public". For me "general public" is a fairly clunky, but often useful placeholder term. It means that I'm not talking to or writing for a specific audience. It also mean that I don't know and that it doesn't matter who my audience is! I try and use the shortest, most accurate words, in the shortest combination, that correctly explains the point or detail I want to deliver. It sounds fairly obvious, but it can take a couple of readings to remove pointless language. On the blog I always aim my writing at the same age range. Somewhere around the 14-16 year old generally accepted reading ability mark. I always keep that in mind as it ensures I don't wander off into my usual writing style.

    For this, audience size doesn't matter to me. Nor does any specific knowledge need to be hidden away in the brain of the reader. You could consider this use of "general public" to mean the lowest common denominator and I wouldn't disagree. I wonder when simplification became a bad thing? Yes, there is an argument that information needs to be imparted as efficiently as possible, but there is a reason this isn't valid in this case. By definition having a "specialist knowledge" of a subject or area means that you are in the tiny minority. The bell curve between GCSE takers and PhD or MA readers it fairly steep. I'm willing to accept that to anyone with a specialist knowledge is being talked down to, if the majority of people are just being spoken to.

    All of this is because I choose to not identify to a specific audience. I have no idea of the make up of the people choosing to read the information that I put out publicly. All I can do is attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. I have no control over the readership, but I can attempt to ensure that anyone can read and understand it.

    Now, if you have the ability to find out information on the "general public" you are writing for, then for me the term no longer applies. I have written press releases for the general public before. This is a sentence that makes no sense to me! If I'm writing a press release, it's not for the general public. It's for the press. They then choose to pass on different bits of information to their specific audiences. If I know I'm writing something specific, I know I'm writing for a non-general audience. The term "general public" in nearly every instance of writing doesn't exist IF you have any audience in mind. There is no "one size fits all" group.

    I think that "general public" can be used a bit like the word "crazy" or "mad". I use crazy as a placeholder word because I don't know something about the mental health of an individual. It's a general term I occasionally use to denote that, in the absence of an understanding, I have to give a behaviour a label for explanatory reasons. The same is true of general public. It only applies when I don't know or understand the audience that I'm dealing with and it isn't a fair reflection of the subtle groups of different knowledge and experience that people occupy.

    I don't like cricket... I love it. Cricket is a game I've both played and watched over countless years, but I still forget the field positioning now! But I can remember all the ways of getting "out"!

  9. Jon Tennant Reply | Permalink

    Killer post Alex. As an Englishman, my life is quite devoid of cricket, surprisingly. Apart from when we're playing Gentleman's drinking rules.

    I think it really depends on the context in which 'the general public' is being used in. Yes, there is variety, which can be loosely bound into a suite of 'publics', but the over-hanging term general public is usually nothing more than that - it just means, well, everyone (including you or me). As such, it means very little when it comes to targetting outreach and communication actitvities, as you're forced to commit to a style that appeals to only one type of 'public', and there's a good chance you'll never even know who that is (e.g., via blogging).

    Just thoughts.

    And to anyone interested in this, there's a webinar coming up on the concept of 'publics', which you can get involved in for free!

  10. Nick Reply | Permalink

    No such position as silly short leg, btw...

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Just because no-one has tried it yet doesn't mean it isn't real :P

      But that just goes to show exactly how I'm not a specialist in cricket, but I may well *think* I know a bit about it!

Leave a Reply

5 × = ten