I love writing tweets, headlines, and taglines. These short, concise bundles of language are meant to deliver a message straight to your brain stuff. Done properly, you’ll utter a laugh or gasp, or have clicked on a link before you even realized why.
But why you laughed or gasped at my words—or completely ignored them—depends entirely on your individual perspective and context.
Consider this pair of headlines I wrote in 2011 to promote a marine ecology sampling expedition to the Pacific Northwest:
When I showed this pair of headlines to graduate researchers in a writing workshop, the first headline raised an eyebrow here or there—probably because many people find sea otters to be cute and adorable animals. Or maybe they were natives of Washington state.
But it was the second headline that drew the laughs. Why? Because the Twilight movies were all the rage at the time. Forks, a real town in Washington, was the setting for this popular series of fantasy novels and movies about vampire romances. And it was going to serve as the base camp for our researchers that week—there to collect blood samples from sea otters to study their exposure to pollution and stress.
I was banking on the national, pop-culture popularity of Twilight to get more attention from a general audience for this story. I wanted to use the vampire headline for the national press release that would go out to reporters—but one official balked, so I ended up using the blander headline instead. But I rewrote the press release into a blogpost I could stick my old headline back on, and promote alongside the press release.
These contrasting styles continued into the lede of each piece. Compare this…
Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks this week, and sea otters will be their quarry on a three-week expedition. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions are studying the health of local sea otters to assess the condition of Washington’s nearshore ecosystem.
Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks, Washington, this week to capture some fanged predators. They are definitely cute and they have great hair, but their seafood-breath should cut short any romantic fantasies.
Of course in 2014, we’ve pretty much forgotten about Twilight, and it has fallen out of context. Even when recognized, mentioning it risks seeming clichéd.
There were many other ways I could have written this headline, depending on the intended audience. For a legislator’s office, I might have led off with how the research benefits that district and is involving local universities. For audiences who despise sea otters (yes, they exist, with their own reasons which we need to consider), I wouldn’t have even mentioned the critters in my headline—perhaps instead highlighting the research goals of improving the health of marine economic resources. And even in 2011 the Twighlight reference carried a risk—I definitely would not have used it in a local community outreach strategy, due to tribal sensitivities regarding the film.
When I’m communicating science, I try to think about the context and perspective of my target audience. This can be framed at different scales.
When communicating to a mass audience through news releases, blogposts, and tweets, we can take advantage of current events and pop culture that a large group of people would recognize, and juxtapose them into something unexpected:
Or we could simply tap into more primal sentiments:
Whether you’re referring to pop culture, current events, or cultural traditions, just make sure you do the research to match up the audience with the reference, so you’re not incorrectly using a reference (embarrassing), or using a reference with inappropriate connotations (more embarrassing).
When communicating to individuals or communities in memos, letters, stories, and conversation, identifying the context and perspective of your audience requires even more thought and intuition.
To build a contextual bridge between my message and my audience. I like to draw on two lessons I learned from my brief time in the newsroom:
1. Think Hyperlocally: People care about where they live, where they’re from, and places they like to go to. So, always emphasize where you conduct your research, or what implications your research has on a local area. Focus on the city/county/landmark scale—hence “hyperlocal” thinking.
2. Relate to the Other: People care about their family legacy, job security, personal freedoms and health. People are also sentimental about their own life stories—experiences which have shaped their perspectives and formed their contexts. So, force yourself to examine issues from someone else’s viewpoint. Learn why someone might feel threatened or passionate about a particular topic. You may not agree with their opinion, but learning how they arrived at their perspective will help you build that contextual bridge.
Outreach fairs are great training grounds to practice these tips—you have to think on your feet and tweak your message delivery to each person or family that walks by your booth. When addressing adults, I like to shoot out questions very early on like “where are you visiting us from” so I can use that context in my message delivery, and as an icebreaker to glean more contexts.
Family and friends—at least ones who don’t work in the same field as you—can offer good practice also. Communications trainers often talk about “the grandma test”, where if you can craft a message that an elderly friend can understand, then you’ve succeeded. You’ve found away to bridge differences in generations, upbringing, cultural norms, et cetera, to explain a concept.
News articles and advertising are the ultimate test beds to learn about context and perspective—except here, “the other” is yourself. You and I are targets of messaging experiments everyday, through the Web, television, email, signboards, and so on. So think about that headline you chose to click on, or the ad that made you laugh or made you think. Why did it work? How did it connect with your personal context and perspective?
Lastly, don’t forget the power of visuals and graphics. Don’t just explain things in words—use maps and photos to illustrate these contexts and to drive home a point.
The above notes on science communications were compiled for my talk at the UC Davis Extension course “Effective Communication: An Introduction to Sharing Technical and Scientific Information” on May 21, 2014. The course is led by Kandace Knudson. Some of the material was previously presented in “Communicating Science Through Context” in 2010.
Bonus Gag: Check out the wonderful tumblr that is “Discourse on the Otter”.
Bonus Chart: Via NPR Digital Services
Bonus Link: Seven Overlooked Tips for Talking Science to Elected Officials: http://thebridge.agu.org/2014/05/21/elected-officials-human/