Start With Expectations

When the audience's expectations are your starting point, you never have a blank page.

A few years ago, I stood at the foot of an auditorium in Delft, addressing an international audience with my thoughts on science communication in the coming century. My microphone headset kept sliding and shifting, leaving me feeling ridiculous as I struggled to keep it in place. A glance at the clock as I approached my conclusions slide showed that I’d talked way too fast. Although I’d practiced my timing at home in Denver, apparently the extra oxygen from being below sea level had me talking a solid ten minutes too fast — to a non-native audience no less!

Embarrassed, I made a joke at my own expense and assured the audience that they’d be able to get to their coffee sooner than they’d expected. As I wrapped up and unplugged my laptop, my husband — who’d joined me for this European trip so that we could enjoy a little vacation time alongside work — bounded up. “I think that went okay,” I told him, “but I’m not really sure.”

“Are you kidding?” he said. “There were a couple old Dutch professors behind me going, ‘Ja, ja,’ in agreement every time you made a point. They loved it!”

What had I done to so thoroughly please the audience in spite of my shortcomings? Quite simply, I’d listened to what they wanted.

The symposium I was invited to was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the hiring of Jan Burgers, a renowned mechanics specialist who elevated the field in both the Netherlands and United States. The theme challenged us to look forward to the next 100 years of fluid mechanics.

That’s a broad theme, one that leaves plenty of room for interpretation — even for someone like me who focuses more on communicating fluid mechanics rather than researching it. But it felt lackluster to simply give a standard talk, as if I was a politician delivering a set stump speech. After all, this symposium was explicitly in honor of an individual; even if he was long dead, I wanted my talk to connect to him directly.

So I delved into Burgers’ life, tracking down scientific biographies, papers, and memorials. I quickly discovered a man whose talents and inclinations matched beautifully with my own ideas of what was needed for the next century of fluid mechanics. He even displayed a lifelong passion for communicating science in clear and simple terms. As he put it:

I believe it should be the task of every scientist to give some attention to the translation of his concepts into terms which make their meaning clear to non-specialists. – Jan Burgers, Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, 1975.

By (figuratively) spending some time with Burgers, I realized that I could say all the things I wanted to share with my audience and show that Burgers lived by and professed those same goals and ideals. I could perfectly marry my message, the meeting’s theme, and the symposium’s honoree. That combination is what elevated my talk for the audience — what won over both younger, future-focused students and the nostalgic old guard. I placed my listeners right at the heart of an ongoing scientific legacy; I respected both what came before and what lies ahead, and I made us all a part of it.

The key to this insight was examining what guidance I was given by the organizers. I looked at every scrap of information I could find about what they wanted. Instead of simply looking at the time I needed to fill, I studied the event as a whole to design the talk I wanted to give and the talk my audience wanted to hear.

As obvious as that seems, I’m constantly amazed how rarely this principle is practiced. Grant funders put out vision statements and guidelines that lay out their expectations for applicants, yet grant writers dive into the weeds without checking those resources. Invitations to speak at a special event get skimmed for the date and time, then delivered a standard presentation. Students dash off an assignment on-time and within the page limit but without once considering what they’re truly being asked to produce.

To some extent, I can understand this: people are busy. Why create something new when you can merely repurpose what already exists? But that’s exactly the problem: by ignoring what your audience is telling you they want, you are sacrificing an obvious starting point for your writing in favor of a blank page.

I didn’t just talk about Jan Burgers because I wanted the audience to like me. I needed a place to start. And the organizing committee — by sharing their vision, plan, and theme — gave me that starting point. By the time I actually opened PowerPoint, I had quotations, pictures, anecdotes, and all kinds of ideas I could integrate into my narrative. I wasn’t facing a blank page; I faced one full of information I could use to build my talk. And I could do so knowing that I was working in concert with my audience’s vision.

So the next time you’re asked to present, submit an article, or prepare a poster, don’t just dive in. Take a moment to study the request. Look for every hint of what your audience wants. Check the website. Follow up the inquiry email with questions. Find out what they want and why they’re asking you for it instead of someone else. Armed with that knowledge, your results will be far more impactful, your talk more memorable, and your journey to the finish line easier.

Want more tips, tricks, and inspiration for communicating your science? Sign up for my newsletter and never miss a post.

(Image credit: N. Capelo)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *