Understanding the General Audience: Communicating Science to the Public

forest 1.jpgIf you were asked what audience-centered writing is, would you be able to say? Last week 32 upper-level meteorology students responded to a survey in which they were asked if they could define this term, and the majority (76 percent) responded “maybe.” Also, when asked to “list strategies you use to adapt your writing to achieve audience-centered writing,” most of the students–73 percent–were able to list only one strategy.

The most frequent strategies mentioned were “adjust the vocabulary or terminology” (24 percent) and, “know who your audience is” (21 percent). Audience-centered writing is key to engaging your reader and encouraging comprehension of your information, particularly if you are communicating with the non-specialists or a general audience, but it isn’t easy to do. Here are ways to achieve this goal.

First, the definition of audience-centered writing is when you write with your reader’s needs, expectations, knowledge, and preferences in mind.  Five key questions to orient you toward a successful audience-centered style are as follows:

  • What expectations does my audience have about my subject? About me as a writer?
  • What is my audience likely to know about the topic?
  • What firsthand experiences is my audience likely to have with the topic? What points will I need to develop?
  • What terms are likely to be unfamiliar to my audience?
  • How will my audience use my writing on this topic? What do they hope to gain from reading my piece?

All writing has an intended audience; someone is always on the receiving end. As a scientist, you will be asked to communicate with those who don’t have your level of expertise, so you’ll need to pay particular attention to audience-centered writing when you are adapting your writing to this more general audience.
To adapt your writing to a general audience consider these eight characteristics.

  • Content–What’s the scope? What needs to be included? What doesn’t? This is about the breadth of the writing.
  • Level of detail–How much information is needed for development? What specific details will this audience need? This goes toward the depth of the writing.
  • Vocabulary–What words does the reader understand? What ones need to be defined? What jargon is understood by the reader? What isn’t?
  • Organization–How will the reader want the material to be presented? How should the pieces be put together for maximum clarity and comprehension? From general to specific? Chronologically? Spatially? From less controversial to more controversial? From simpler to more complex?
  • Tone–What is the sound of the language? Formal? Informal? Irreverent? Serious? Playful?
  • Visuals–What graphs, tables, diagrams, illustrations or other visual aids are needed to convey the salient points to this reader?
  • Format/Structure–What is the physical appearance of the material? Titles? Headings? Subheadings? Conventional? Unconventional?
  • Readability–How accessible is the content and language overall?

To communicate well is to engage in self-interest. The ability to write and speak effectively will determine in no uncertain terms, the perceived importance and validity of your work. To a large degree, your reputation will rest on your ability to communicate. The reason to improve your skill in this area is not just to please your teachers; it is to gain advantage in the professional world.
If a tree falls in the woods, and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Isn’t this similar to a scientists writing without readers?

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