As a graduate student, one of my favorite tasks was giving tours of our lab. I worked in a lab full of supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels — large, loud equipment that was unusual even among aerodynamics labs. We were situated in-between two large, low-speed wind tunnels, so visitors were treated to those facilities alongside our own. They got to see machines capable of flows from a light breeze to a screaming seven times the speed of sound. And my job was to highlight how different these wind tunnels were from one another, in every sense.
I hosted high schoolers, visiting professors, prospective graduate students, and even university regents. My guests ranged from those who heard the words “wind tunnel” for the first time from my mouth, all the way to people who had decades of experience using such facilities. So while my message might not change, the way I expressed it shifted drastically, depending on my audience.
In fact, that was my favorite part of the job: adapting on-the-fly to the experience-, comfort-, and interest levels of whoever I was speaking to.
Who Is Your Audience?
To this day, one of the first questions I ask myself or any client with a project is this: who is your audience?
It sounds trivial, but it’s a critical question to answer because so much flows from the answer. Audiences use language differently. They have different motivations and expectations — even different life experiences — all of which a good communicator will account for.
To illustrate, check out how Dickerson et al. described their same research — on how dogs shake themselves dry — to three different audiences:
In cold wet weather, mammals face hypothermia if they cannot dry themselves. By rapidly oscillating their bodies, through a process similar to shivering, furry mammals can dry themselves within seconds. We use high-speed videography and fur particle tracking to characterize the shakes of 33 animals […] ranging over four orders of magnitude in mass from mice to bars. […] We also observe a novel role for loose mammalian dermal tissue: by whipping around the body, it increases the speed of drops leaving the animal and the ensuing dryness relative to tight dermal tissue.
As far as academic writing goes, this description is fairly accessible. It uses technical language — particle tracking, mammalian dermal tissue, etc. — and long sentences, but the authors keep everything in the active voice. They include details — like measurements over four orders of magnitude in mass — that are mainly interesting to a technical audience. They also couch one of their most interesting findings — that loose skin helps animals get dry — in relatively dense language in the last sentence.
Unfortunately for the authors, their paper got picked on by politicians eager to accuse researchers of wasting federal money. In his response to those politicians, one of the authors wrote:
Clothes dryers take 40 minutes and much of our daily household budget. But a wet dog can shake off 90 percent of water in a fraction of a second. If a dog were to use our method of drying, it would use a third of its daily calories. We discovered that a dog’s skin is especially loose and its hair is tuned to release drops with little expenditure of energy. The lesson from our wet dog study […] is that we should tune our drying materials to release water if we truly wish to save energy.
Notice that this description of the work — while similar in meaning — is focused quite differently. Here, the author frames the work in the context of clothes dryers and energy usage — something that’s accessible to the typical American and, thus, of concern to their elected officials. Anyone who’s looked at their monthly energy bill knows that dryers use a lot of energy. They take a long time to dry clothes, especially compared to a dog that gets mostly dry in a fraction of a second. Clearly, the researcher argues, dogs know things about getting dry that we don’t, and we can benefit from uncovering that knowledge.
In a final example, one of the authors described this work a third time, in a book for general audiences. There, he wrote:
When I gave [my dog] Jerry a bath, I found his shake could remove up to 70 percent of the water contained in his fur. It took only a fraction of a second, whereas our laundry machines take minutes to perform comparably.
This explanation is the tightest of all; it contains the fewest long words and the overall simplest language. Instead of focusing on a hypothetical wet dog, we instead hear about Jerry, the author’s dog, who helped inspire the initial work. Jerry is a concrete actor for the audience to latch on to. We also get the broader context — dryers aren’t as good at getting clothes dry as dogs are at drying themselves.
You may find yourself wondering which of these descriptions is the best. But that’s the wrong question. Our job as communicators is not to find The One Description To Rule Them All: it’s to effectively deliver our message to a given audience. In that respect, all three of these examples succeed.
All three descriptions convey the same basic, physical message. Each version adapts to the needs and expectations of the audience: technical audiences get more terminology and methodology; politicians get the message framed in practical terms; and general audiences get a succinct story with concrete characters.
In other words, no description of your work — whether it’s a research paper or a lab tour — is a simple One-And-Done. Your message may always stay the same, but you need to recognize your audience and their needs to express your message in a way they understand.
Fortunately, that need for adaptation keeps the game fresh for you as a communicator; every day and every audience is an invitation to try something new.
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- A. K. Dickerson, Z. G. Mills, and D. L. Hu, Wet mammals shake at tuned frequencies to dry, J. R. Soc. Interface 9, 3208 (2012).
- D. L. Hu, How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls (affiliate link) Princeton University Press, 2018.
- D. L. Hu, Confessions of a wasteful scientist , Sci. Am. Guest Blog (2016).
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(Image credits: lab photo – K. Sharp, illustration – N. Sharp; Wet dog image courtesy of A. Dickerson and D. Hu, used with permission.)