So, who is your audience? My whole workday can be focused around that simple yet complicated question.
As I’m crafting a stream of words for an article, I’m lining them up against a mental picture, a mini-dossier, of the person will read them. On any given day, I might spend my morning writing sentences for PhD scientists and my afternoon constructing word pictures for school-age children. That’s a huge leap, and I don’t know many science writers who routinely bridge that chasm. But if I lose my picture of my audience, I lose my focus.
Today I’ve been thinking about a workshop that I’m developing for early career scientists to help them deal with the day-to-day communications challenges in their careers from building collaborations with colleagues to describing their work for policymakers, the media, and the general public. As I’m thinking about what I’ll present, I’m realizing how much I need to emphasize building that picture of your audience. Before you start talking, you have to start listening.
It’s so easy to forget the listening part. Maybe you’re having a conversation over a cup of coffee, and it’s easy to just talk instead of ask questions and then actively process what the other person has to say. Sometimes it’s hard to make time to read and think outside a very defined topic area. But as you listen and think you gather the vital clues that serve as the foundation of that mini-dossier: What do this person and I have in common? How do we see the world differently? How might we be able to work together?
Those are the questions that I think will most help the scientists in my workshop understand the concept of audience. But though my questions as a journalist are more about gathering information and insights to present in another form, I also need to remind myself to pay attention and not to talk too much.
I just stuck a post-it above my computer monitor: Stop, think and listen.