Sunday, August 21, 2016

Communicating science when facts aren’t enough

When I was a child, my family watched the popular TV series Dragnet. It popularized an oft-repeated, pop culture phrase Just the facts, ma’am.” Like many who gravitate to scientific fields, I value knowing the facts. So it’s counterintuitive to me, a data-loving person, that many in the public are not moved by factual information and explanation. 

At the recent North American Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) in Madison, Wisconsin, which had as its theme Science Communication for Conservation Action, many presentations reinforced that communicating scientific fact alone doesn’t have much impact on peoples’ attitudes or behaviors. To connect with audiences, messages and information need specific framing and must tap into the audience’s values. I had some appreciation of this before going to NACCB, but the meeting drove it home for me in a powerful way; it has stimulated much contemplation on my part. In particular, what does it mean for me—and for the clients with whom I work on science-based communications—when facts aren’t enough?

I’ll be seeking answers to this question for a long time, maybe for the rest of my career. But an immediate answer is—it means I need to learn as much as possible about the audience. To communicate effectively, we must get to know our intended audiences very well.

The opening remarks of the Keynote session at NACCB were given by Paul Robbins, Director of The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, UW Madison. He emphasized the importance of beginning environmental conversations with what the audience values. For example, most Wisconsin residents aren’t interested in hearing that climate change will bring warmer temperatures and increases in rainfall. But many do care about trout—and about the effects that overly warm streams have on trout. Others have grappled with groundwater contamination and sludge that comes with flooding after major rain events. So, when communicating about climate change in Wisconsin, the conversation goes better if you start with trout, or sludge. Paraphrasing Robbins, when people realize that what you’re doing (when fighting climate change) is trying to prevent these problems, you’ve had a communication moment.

Know your audience. 
More specifically, talk to prospective audiences and learn what they value. This is so important and yet so hard to achieve. When inevitable budget constraints arise in a project, audience research is often one of the first things to go.

I developed museum exhibits for years. Whenever possible, we built audience research into schedules and budgets. However, not-for-profit budgets are frequently pretty bare bones. In one best-case scenario, we had resources to conduct a front-end phone survey of a few hundred people—some general audience, plus a targeted demographic. In projects at the other end of the spectrum, no money was available for audience research. Usually for these projects, exhibit developers went out onto the public floor to do quick studies of visitors in attendance at the museum. While the small sample sizes weren’t ideal, at least we were gaining a sense of our existing audience (but not new ones). 

I suspect others communicating for not-for-profits have had similar experiences—knowing that they need to learn more about prospective audiences, but not having the staff or funding to do it. And so audience research gets minimized or bypassed altogether. I understand this; I know how hard it can be to bring projects in on budget and on time. But the more I learn about effective science communication, the more I think that allowing audience research to slip is a false economy.

Going back to my original question: What does it mean when facts aren’t enough? It means that we need to know our audiences and what they value. We need to find the trout and sludge equivalents for our topics—the entry points that connect our target audiences to the subject matter—to achieve effective communication moments. It also means that I will do everything in my power to build audience research into my communication projects. 

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