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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Communicating Science – 1: Audience

There is more to communicating science than simply being enthusiastic. Despite it’s bad reputation, there is also alot more to doing it well than simply “dumbing down”. In the face of explaining something to a total stranger, my first concern is that I neither want to offput with jargon nor mistakenly patronise. I then have the challenge of showing them why it is interesting. Here, I can only give people what excites me, and that is my favourite part!

The open blog is an interesting medium through which to communicate – it is (comments aside) a one-way dialogue to pretty much anyone. I try to keep my writing accessible and interesting to most people, but by adopting a certain style we are subconsciously choosing our audience – it happens naturally. This is a rather nice exception to an otherwise very tricky game of guess-the-audience’s-taste – if you like our blogs, you will read them and if you don’t, you won’t. (For example, I am not sitting here fretting about those people who might find my yoyo and catapult building silly, or who have no interest in physics!)

I am passionate about science communication and during my career so far I have found myself in various environments with various audiences to talk/write to. The most awkward and challenging of these, to my mind, is the “stand-up” style of something like Famelab – how are you to correctly judge your unknown audience’s understanding, taste and interest, without continued feedback and adaptation? In many ways it is rather like stand-up comedy, because you can never be sure you won’t have totally misjudged this and end up with rolling tumbleweeds or booing. (not to put people off the idea or anything!) However, just as in comedy, there are the occasional charismatic characters who stand out and win over specialists and newbies alike. The woman with the winning video for the Edinburgh Famelab entry, Matilda Bradford, achieves this for me, as a scientist who knows nothing about genetics!

My favourite way to communicate science to an audience I am unfamiliar with is in a chatty informal atmosphere (pub, party, over lunch?), where more and more questions can be asked – the fact is, tailoring to a general audience is extremely tricky and it works so much better if you can find out more about the specific person/people you are trying to reach. When visiting schools or with groups of students the majority’s prior knowledge is reasonably specific, it is much easier to adjust your style and assess what is catching their attention and what isn’t. The Birmingham masterclass last week (see later!) was a great chance to talk to bright A level students with an active interest in particle physics and varying levels of understanding. After talks and exercises, we had the chance to each talk to a small group and discuss their questions. We took advantage of the sun and sat outside on the grass and had great fun with this – informal atmospheres are more relaxing so it felt less daunting for them to ask things they thought were daft (and in my line of work I have learned that there are no daft questions – the ones that came up were really intelligent and tough to answer!)

Sunshine + Physics = fun!

Sunshine + Physics = fun!

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