Approximate reasing time: 3 minutes, 55 seconds
I write this post in April 2019 and the most influential person on Instagram at the moment is Christiano Ronaldo. People watch him, follow him, want to be like him. If he says a product is good thousands of people buy the same product. In fact, he doesn’t even need to say a thing. It’s enough if he keeps the product in his hands to make people want it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Christiano Ronaldo started mentioning on every occasion that science is cool, that being smart is cool and that scientists rule? How about him mentioning that he vaccinated his children and that not doing it was lame? Or maybe he could casually mention that global warming is real and we should be seriously worried about it?
Wouldn’t it be nice to have such an ambassador of science to reach the masses? Wouldn’t it be nice to be such an ambassador?
When doing my ‘field research’ I spoke to scientists and researchers whose understanding of science communication was ‘all or nothing’. They didn’t think they should start science communication at all as there was little chance their research would reach the masses. After all they were not Ronaldos, were they?
Therefore, even if some of them are tempted to start science communication, the amount of additional work they imagine it would involve makes them reconsider. The vision of having to go around and ‘make publicity’ to the general audience is overwhelming. This made me realise that the extent to which scientists and researchers misunderstand the purpose and scope of science communication is huge. It made me realise that it could be one of the main obstacles for many to even considering communicating science.
If you believe the most important thing about science communication is reaching as many people as possible with your message then think again. If, however, you dream about reaching the masses with your research and feel a little discouraged by the fact that there is very little chance for Christiano Ronaldo to help you promote it remember this:
Very few research areas need or should be communicated to the masses.
In fact, I can hardly think about topics that are or should be interesting to the whole society. There are some usual suspects such as climate change or vaccines, or the fact that mosquitoes seem to bite some people more than others [thanks to Dr Cameron Webb]. The latter I guess should be interesting for almost everybody who has ever spent an evening in nature. However, the majority of research done in academia will not be directly interesting to an average lay citizen.
The question is – why should you even try to communicate your research to everybody?
What you should do instead is identify three important areas to focus on to achieve more by doing less:
The most important aspect is that you need to have a reason to communicate your science. This reason will help you to identify the audience you should communicate to.
The curious thing about identifying your audience is that quite often you make your life more difficult by not specifying your audience enough. Groups such as women, children, policy-makers, and teachers are not specific enough. All of the above leaves you with quite a huge group of potential recipients of your message. Your job is to try and limit this group as much as possible by language, geography, demography, specific interests and as many other factors as you can think of.
To stay on my own playground, it’s not enough to say you want to communicate to policy-makers or even to communicate to the Members of the European Parliament. Although a group of 751 doesn’t seem too broad, communicating something to all MEPs will most probably involve an extensive effort and won’t bring a desired result.
What you should do instead is think about Members that sit in committees you are particularly interested in. You should check who is working with files that cover your area of interest. You should also check (on Twitter, in the media or in other online sources) what the real interests of MEPs you have initially identified as the ones you want to communicate to are. You should also think about who they are working with, where they get their information from or whom they trust to provide them with data.
3) Key persons
Sometimes only after you identify a limited enough group of Members you realise that in order to make them dedicate some time to your research you will first need to speak to their advisors, assistants or other staff. Then you may even realise there is one particular advisor that the Members you are interested in reaching will listen to.
Suddenly, before you even realise, you may end up with one person to communicate to in order to get the result you count on.
It’s true that the process of identifying first your reason, then your audience and finally your key persons is difficult and time-consuming. However, it gives you at least 3 advantages:
• you save a lot of time later on communication itself;
• you prepare tailor-made communication;
• you are more effective in your communication than you would be if you tried to communicate to everybody.
If you think about it closely, the process of identifying the reason, the audience and the key person(s) looks a lot like a widely discussed mechanism of influencers.
Influencer is a person with the power to affect purchasing decisions of others. You may think purchasing decisions have nothing to do with what you need to achieve in science communication yet you need your audience to ‘buy’ your research if you want the desired result.
Influencers have the power over a group of people because of their authority, knowledge, position or relationship with their audience. Your key persons don’t need to be as popular as Christiano Ronaldo. For your purposes, it’s sufficient enough if they have enough power to help you reach your ultimate audience through them.