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Communication Fundamentals

Successful engagement builds on a foundation of clear, concise communication. As you think about how to communicate about your work, remember the framework of goal-audience-message. Effective science communication will help you more efficiently achieve your goals for public engagement with science.


Communication Goals

Just like a well-planned research program, public engagement with science starts with a goal in mind. Goals for communication to engage the public may be long-term, including such outcomes as fostering trust with specific individuals and between science and society, improving the use of scientific evidence in decision-making, or improving scientific research, questions, plans, or agendas. The diagram below is a preliminary map of the ways in which public engagement contributes to these long-term goals.

AAAS Logic Model for Public Engagement with Science

Individual engagements add to the ecosystem of experiences that scientists and members of the public have, which can cumulatively lead to long-term outcomes. Your engagement strategy may have a few specific goals in mind; consider focusing on shorter-term outcomes, such as increasing interest in a particular topic or “humanizing” scientists and science, which can later lead to longer-term goals.


Audiences for Engagement

With whom will you communicate? You can choose to focus your communication on the audiences that are best-positioned to help you reach your communication goals. For example, if your goal is to provide input to a decision, your target audience may be decision-makers themselves, or may also include the decision-maker’s constituents (e.g., clients of a business or voters in a community). Other goals, such as fostering trust, may seem more universal. You are more likely to be successful in reaching your goal if you clearly define your audience well. You can also think about your identity and what groups you already have connections with. Many of us have connections with faith communities, for example. See these profiles about science engagement with faith communities, and many other tips and ideas for public engagement, developed by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program. 

Whenever possible, think carefully about the composition of your audience in advance. By knowing the needs and expectations of the audience, you can frame your big ideas in ways that are most relevant to the audience. Consider the questions:

  • What might the audience be interested in related to my topic?
  • What commonalities do I have with the audience?
  • What questions might the audience ask?

For help with the answers:

  • Consider the Venue: Are you speaking at a science café, or planning a social media strategy? Reach out to the point of contact or organizer for information and to ask questions about the attendees. When you schedule an interview with a reporter, ask them about the story and what kind of information they are looking for.
  • Conduct an Internet Search: What type of events has the organization held in the past? Read or watch some stories the journalist wrote or produced to determine their perspective on the topic. On social media, review content produced or shared by members of your target audience in the past.
  • On the Spot: For in-person engagements, take some time beforehand to meet audience members. During an event, you can take a quick poll of the audience by asking for a show of hands, to get a sense of prior experience or interest.



How do you translate detailed and complex material into a clear, streamlined structure?

  • Why Should I Care? Start out by communicating the "big picture" and why the audience should care. Then go into an appropriate level of detail to emphasize your key points.
  • Three-Point Structure: What are the three things you want your audience to remember and respond to? Organize your message around these key points.

How do you choose just three key points? Think about your audience and what they want to know. You could talk about three focuses of your research, three results, three reasons your work is important, three potential applications, etc.

One example of a three-point message was developed for the AAAS What We Know initiative. This initiative focuses on the reality, risks, and response to climate change. While the big ideas of this 16-page report can be summarized (and recalled) in three words, each of those words represents a major idea that is described in more depth over several pages. More detail and conversation about your three-point message can be added as appropriate for your audience and goal. Also, watch Microbiologist Maria Elena Bottazzi Counters Vaccine Misinformation for inspiration on how to handle misinformation in your conversations.

For more information on developing your message, watch this AAAS-produced webinar.

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"Jargon can be, in my mind, a tool, a weapon, a wall, and/or a bridge. Jargon is important shorthand within a field, but that language can be used to keep others out, or to shut others down."

Joe Heimlich

While scientific or technical terminology, also known as jargon, is useful in a particular field, it is often difficult for non-scientists to understand. Even scientists from different fields, such as biology and physics, may use similar language with vastly different meanings. Technical terms can also have different meanings, or no meaning at all, which can alienate public audiences and limit their engagement.

Try out language on friends, family, and colleagues who do not have the same technical background as you. Use feedback to learn which words work and which don't. For example, your musician brother or lawyer friend could help you practice explaining how you "break open cells" instead of "induce lysis" to make your message better understood by a wider range of audiences.


Communication Strategies

The other pages in this section provide guidance for applying the goal-audience-message-framework to different communication channels and audiences, as well as tips for using visual communication throughout your various engagements. Watch our Science Communication and Public Engagement Fundamentals mini workshop video to learn more.

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