Summary: Knowing your audience is critically important when communicating but often overlooked when preparing papers, talks, and grants. Here I offer general advice and specific examples of how we can better communicate by understanding who is on the receiving end. In short, meet your audience where they are and teach them something they care about.
To effectively communicate, it helps to know with whom I'm communicating. If I were a car mechanic, I would not explain a repair the same way to a person who regularly disassembles engines and the person who has never changed a tire—these two people will care about (and understand) very different levels of detail.
These same rules apply when giving a talk, writing a paper, or submitting a grant: My audience shapes the theoretical framing, vocabulary, and detail that I go into. Here I share a few thoughts regarding the general principles I've found to be successful and how these might apply in some common academic situations.
Meet your audience where they are and teach them something
I forget if I heard this somewhere or made it up myself (a quick internet search doesn't turn up an obvious source). It has become my mantra for planning talks and works well for other communications as well. All of the other specific advice flows out of this.
I've recently expanded on this to remind myself I should teach audiences something they care about—which encourages me to choose a topic relevant for the audience at hand, and frame the discussion in a way that relates to their interests. So: Meet your adueicne where they are and teach them something they care about.
Consider who your audience members are, not who you want them to be
It's easy to fall into wishful thinking about our audience. For example, it would be wonderful to not have to go over the lobes of the brain several times per year. I know this very well; why doesn't my audience? But, if they don't know it, they will probably be lost for the rest of the talk.
So, how do we know our audience?
Sometimes knowing our audience is easy (for example, giving a talk in my home department, or as part of an ongoing lecture series I regularly attend). Other times it's more difficult—talks at other institutions, conferences I've never attended, and so on. If I'm not sure who my audience is going to be, here are some approaches I've found to be useful:
Ask for advice from someone who knows the audience. This might be the person who invited me to give a talk, someone who has submitted a grant to the same study section, or just a more experienced colleague.
Ask for feedback when possible. For example, having a brief questionnaire or quiz at the end of a lecture can give me an idea of how well the material was understood. If people aren't getting what I want them to, I may need to adjust my expectations about my audience. Feedback can also come implicitly: grant scores, for example, can indicate whether I correctly judged my audience.
Assess my own ability to connect with an audience. Paying attention to the audience's reaction during and after a talk can provide valuable hints about how well I gauged my audience. It is difficult to change slides on the fly, but I can frequently modify the emphasis of my talk based on what people seem most interested in (within reason).
I may elaborate on some of these in future posts, but these snippets below will give you a more concrete idea of how to apply the above principles.
I've heard rumors that some people first write a manuscript, and then decide to which journal they should send it. I have never understood this—nearly every journal has its own traditions, guidelines, and core readership. I can't imagine writing a single article that would fit equally well at more than 2-3 journals (and even that would be a stretch). I always pick a journal first, which helps to shape my writing. If I'm not familiar with a journal, I'll pull up the most recent issue and skim through several articles, which gets me in the right mindset.
If picking a specific journal seems too burdensome, at least have an idea of the type of person reading the article. For me, that might mean thinking about the level of phonetic vs. linguistic vs. neuroscientific detail I expect most readers will care about.
Sometimes when I'm invited to give a talk the person inviting me tries to emphasize how little work it will be, saying that I can simply give a talk I already have. (In fairness I've told myself this, too.) The truth is that I have seldom given the same talk more than once. Sure, I've spoken about the same data, and re-used slides (sometimes nearly all of them). But talking about the neural bases for speech comprehension has different applications for psychologists, speech language pathologists, and neuroscience PhD students. On my better days I have worked rather hard to mold the content and emphasis to what the audience is interested in.
The first major NIH grant (R01) I wrote was triaged—the initial score was sufficiently low (rightfully so) that it was not discussed. Among many issues was the fact that I wrote the grant with far too much specificity. I was imagining three reviewers who would be extremely savvy as to the subtleties of my subfield, and I didn't want to gloss over anything and seem unsophisticated. As a result, my grant got bogged down in details and I didn't convey the big picture.
With a bit more experience, I now have more sympathy for reviewers who have too much to do and who are likely NOT interested in the minute details of my argument (especially late at night as they try to finish grant reviews). I've shifted my approach to be more big picture and aimed at non-experts (or sleepy experts).
The irony does not escape me that my first blog post here is about audience. I have loosely defined the anticipated audience for this blog as "people, mostly scientists, who are interested in similar things to me"—though I try to have special consideration grad students and early stage investigators. Although that's not a tenable approach for grants or papers, sometimes it's OK to just create content and let the chips fall where they may.
Meet your audience where they are and teach them something they care about. If we can all do that most of the time, we'll be doing well!