We first need to address the information deficit model, a big point of contention in the science communication community. It has been largely disproven, but has also left a lasting impact on science communication that, unfortunately, lingers to this day.
If you're not familiar with the information deficit model, don't spend too much time looking it up: the premise of the model is that a deficit of accessible information about science is the primary cause of public science illiteracy and skepticism and, as a remedy, it suggests scientists provide higher quantities of easier-to-understand information about science, largely via mass media. Over the last few decades, the science communication community organized itself around this model. That's why lots of scicomm trainings still focus on tactics like reducing jargon and why communication – in any medium, to any audience, for any purpose – is celebrated as an end in and of itself.
Unfortunately, information deficit is not the cause of illiteracy or skepticism (in fact, recent studies show that the most science literate people can also the most skeptical). We've since learned that an audience's willingness to believe new information isn't really based on the quantity of facts or how clearly they're presented, but instead on who's presenting that information, how it's presented, and what pre-existing motivations – particularly emotionally driven ones – the audience has to believe it.
Thus, to be effective, science communication (and its siblings, "outreach" and "engagement") cannot be an end in itself. Simply communicating information is not enough to convince most audiences to believe it. That's why, at Massive, we teach that communication is a means for accomplishing something with a specific audience.
The first step of communicating, then, is to choose your purpose, define your audience, and try to understand their motivations.
This framework already applies to every other type of communication you do as a scientist, even if you don't realize it. When you write a paper for a scientific journal, you've implicitly decided that your purpose is to expand scientific knowledge in your field. Your audience is other scientists in your field. Their motivation in reading your paper is to advance their own work by learning about new contributions to their branch of science. Those implicit understandings determine the format (scientific paper), medium (mostly text and data), distribution method (scientific journal) and success criteria (acceptance/number of citations over time). When you apply for a grant or present a paper to your lab, all of those variables change, but the framework is still there.
This shouldn't change for other types of communication outside of academia. When you talk to a reporter, you should have a purpose, audience, and motivation in mind before you do your interview. If you want to find a job in industry, you'll want to think about your purpose (getting hired), your audience (hiring managers) and their motivations (quickly filtering for high-quality candidates) in determining how to write your application. Even if all you want to do is tell a better story at a dinner party, understanding your purpose (entertaining guests), audience (party guests), and their motivations (being entertained) first will help you be the life of the party.
For a more concrete example, look at Massive's website. Our purpose is to help people understand the scientific process, although some articles have a more specific purpose, like getting people to call their members of congress. We define our audience as science-curious people. The trait was first identified by researchers at Yale, and it predicts someone's ability to correctly interpret new information about science. It also appears to be evenly distributed across gender, age, race, class, and even political affiliation, making it an ideal way to reach a diverse audience. Science curious people are motivated by learning new things about science, because it makes them feel emotionally satisfied. Thus, when we write, edit, and publish our stories, we try to create pieces that highlight surprising new ideas, understandings, or arguments likely to trigger someone's science curiosity.
Finding the fit between your purpose, your audience, and their motivations is one of the most difficult parts of effective communications. Even for professionals, finding that fit is hard for a single person to do alone, which is why publications employ story editors to help writers shape their articles and audience development professionals to make sure stories reach the right people.
Now, let's get you some practice thinking in terms of purpose, audience, and motivation.
Exercise 2: One Concept, Three Audiences
For this exercise, we're going to shamelessly copy one of our favorite science storytelling series: Wired's One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty video series.
Choose a scientific concept that you know well. It can be something general, like CRISPR or evolution, or a specific idea in your field. Assume your purpose is to get your audience to understand the concept. Then, for each audience, list a few of the motivations you think they have for listening to you. Then, write a brief (around 100-word) explanation using the four-part structure for the previous lessons, keeping in mind your audience's potential motivations. For college students and experts, we're also asking you to identify some relevant hashtags and accounts that might be interested in these explanations. This is part of the real pitching process that you'll try next week.
When you're done, share your completed exercise as a reply in the One Concept, Five Audiences topic for feedback! While you're there, don't forget to comment on other writers' exercises, too.
Experts' Twitter Handles: