Communicating with a Public Audience

What is a public audience?

A public audience is a group of listeners with a wide range of educational, cultural, and social backgrounds. Public audiences may be people who use scientific information

  • in their daily work (farmers, medical technologists, electricians, etc.)
  • to make decisions about social issues (wastewater treatment)
  • to educate themselves within a special interest group (clubs)
  • to make decisions about funding issues (voters)

What are the vehicles for communicating with a public audience?

  • Science “news” magazines (Scientific American)
  • General interest magazines (Time, Newsweek)
  • Newspapers
  • Radio programs
  • TV programs
  • Videos
  • The Internet
  • Presentations to community groups (clubs, church groups)
  • Presentations to school children in their classrooms
  • Panel discussions for community groups or specialized audiences
  • Press conferences

How do public audiences perceive scientific information?

  • Most people’s knowledge of science comes from what they read or hear in the media.
  • People often cannot detect distortions of facts present in science reporting.
  • People who make up public audiences aren’t interested in scientific details. They are interested in how science affects their daily lives, their health, and their safety.

Consideration for your audience is your primary concern in public communication of your science.

To communicate with a public audience, a scientist must synthesize his or her scientific understanding into a nugget that can be communicated effectively for public understanding.

How can I communicate effectively with this audience?

From Penrose & Katz (your textbook) pages 148-158: You can adapt your science using several techniques:

  • Narration – tell a story that illustrates your point
  • Examples – use logical examples that draw on your audience’s experiences.
  • Analysis – break down complex ideas into their parts
  • Comparison – use literary techniques such as synonyms, similes, metaphors (use carefully – choose one idea & go with it), analogy (“killer algae”)
  • Graphics – simplicity and creativity are key

Be sure to focus on relating the unfamiliar (your science) to the familiar (what your audience understands already).

Simplify without being condescending!

Be conversational – pretend you’re explaining what you do to Aunt Minnie at the family reunion.

Use active voice (save the passive for scientific journals that still require it).

Narrow your subject. Don’t try to take on too much – you will just confuse your audience.

Have fun! Communicating with a public audience can be your place to use your creativity; it can also be personally rewarding

What are some characteristics of science articles for public audiences?

  • Pathos is frequently the dominant rhetorical feature. For example, magazine articles will focus on public concerns about health risks of a disease rather than on the nature of the research.
  • Extremes of enthusiasm tend to accompany the announcement of new “breakthroughs.” Interferon publicity in the early 1980’s is a case in point.
  • Extremes of enthusiasm can give way to extremes of disenchantment. Example: genetically engineered crops, such as use of “ice minus” on strawberries.
  • Articles will tend to focus on the competitive aspects of science.
  • More and more, scientists themselves shape the communication. People want to hear from experts – that’s why science journalists interview and quote scientists for their articles.
  • Public sector articles tend to focus on the human aspect of science – sometimes on the life of the researcher rather than the science itself.
  • The “Gee Whiz” factor is essential (and legitimate) in science reporting. You want to interest your audience in the topic!
  • Science articles are reactive and focus on crisis situations.
  • Science articles are structured differently than science research reports. You won’t have the familiar IMRAD format to follow! See the chapter reprint by David Jarmul for tips on writing a science article.

How do scientists and journalists interact?

  • Scientists sometimes complain that journalists are too sensationalist and take the scientist’s words out of context when quoting.
  • Another frequent source of tension between scientists and journalists concerns the appropriate role of the press in science communication.
  • Scientists are sometimes unhappy with the way their information is written or reported, even in “science news” publications.
  • Scientists are sometimes reluctant to talk with journalists because they are concerned that extensive public communication will erode their professional ethos within the scientific community. Certainly, public communication must be done carefully, with consideration for ethical concerns of participating in the peer review process prior to communication of new research results.

Online Resources

An article published by the National Academy of Sciences showing the importance of public understanding in science and policy issues.
Improving Communication About New Food Technologies