“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip
A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?


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How can nonprofits build diversity awareness into their communication? There are no easy answers. But I find it helps to think of diversity-friendly communication as a tapestry. If you weave diversity awareness into each aspect of your outreach, you’ll see better results than you would if you tacked it on at the end.

That’s the approach my former coworker Dr. Sherrill Sellers recommended when we wrote the CIRTL Diversity Resources. Although the Diversity Resources were written for university instructors, nonprofits can use similar approaches. I recommend checking out our case study collection if you are thinking of organizing facilitated conversations about diversity.

When we were producing the Diversity Resources, we sifted through many university workbooks on creating welcoming climates. We found that a band-aid approach to diversity-friendly communication may be a step in the right direction, but it is just a step. More needs to be done.

After the Be the Media! conference in Boston on Dec. 6, I wrote the following list of questions to help organizations communicate inclusively. Items 1, 2 and 6 are partly based on comments by our facilitators, Elena Letona and Kathleen Pequeño.

  1. Whom do you ask for their opinion? If you look at whose voices are absent from your decisions, you may find some gaps. Consider having conversations, surveys and focus groups to include unheard stakeholders. For example, if you are working on an environmental issue in a low-income community, remember to ask for community feedback. This is especially important if there is a language barrier.
  2. Are your communication channels working? Make sure not to rely exclusively on the Internet if you want to reach a diverse base of potential supporters. Consider mobile-friendly websites and phone apps. Low-income young people often browse using their phones. Test drive new approaches to see what works.
  3. Is your communication jargon-free, easy to understand, and interesting? Remember, your audiences are not required to listen to you, even if you’re communicating vital health information about disease prevention or disaster awareness. Think about the style of language you’re using. If you use research language with non-specialists, your message may be ignored or misinterpreted. Ask your audiences for feedback.
  4. Is your message relevant? Why should your audiences care about the issues that matter to your organization? If you get to know them and learn what matters to them, your communication will be much more on target than it would be otherwise.
  5. Have you stepped outside your office to visit your audiences lately? How well do you know them? The more you develop  relationships, the better your communication will be.
  6. Have you considered partnering with or hiring messengers from underrepresented groups? Try crowdsourcing media, inviting people to tell their own stories via videos or blogs, and asking questions to draw out answers. You can use the results to develop stories for funders, decision makers, and media.
  7. Do you ask for constructive criticism? If you only focus on positive stories, you won’t see the roots of problems.
  8. Are your events, jobs and internships accessible to people who earn less than a middle-class income? Holding fundraisers with lower ticket prices, reducing reliance on alumni networks for hiring, and paying interns who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are three steps you can take to make your organization more welcoming.

Weaving ideas like these into your communication and outreach can help you develop real relationships with communities rather than being seen as an outside agency. The more you make your communication two-way – listening, respecting community comments, and taking an interest in others – the better your results are likely to be. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.


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This post is a response to a question I received from Climate Access. How does one put a human face on images of global warming?

Local images engage audiences. In recent years, lack of locally relevant images and stories has damaged media sources’ ability to communicate about global warming. Now that we are beginning to see global warming is damaging infrastructure, flooding island communities, and displacing people, it is becoming easier to find images that capture global warming’s effects.

Flooding in Manhattan
Potential levels of future flooding in Manhattan. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

This map of projected New York City flooding is from Union of Concerned Scientists and was republished by Gothamist. Showing a map like this to New Yorkers on a downtown street – and videotaping their reactions – could create a strong wake-up call for urban residents.

Beach vacation spots are also at risk. Given that flooding maps project that the entire southern tip of Florida will be affected by sea level rise, an image of tourists on a beach like the one below could appeal to people who value their vacation destinations.

Beach photo
Florida beaches like this one may disappear as global warming progresses. (Source: AllBestWallpapers.com)

In Alaska, roads are beginning to crack for a variety of reasons. One cause of the damage is global warming, which is shifting the permafrost underneath the highways. The image below, from the New York Times’ Science section, shows a road in the Yukon which is starting to break. A video of a driver attempting to traverse a broken road would put a human face on global warming in the far north.

A cracked road in the Yukon
Cracking on the shoulder of the road north of Burwash Landing, Yukon. (Source: Government of Yukon)

In Texas and other states, hurricanes may increase in strength due to global warming. The predictions vary. Once more information is available, it may be true that images like the one below capture one facet of global warming. The photo below was taken in Seabrook, Texas and appeared in National Geographic. The woman in the photo returned to her home to find it flattened.

A woman viewing her house after a hurricane
A woman standing on the remains of her house after a hurricane. (Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

With global warming, it’s hard to pinpoint some cause-and-effect relationships. Although sea level rise is well known, other issues, such as migrating fish populations and erratic weather, are more difficult to attribute to global warming directly. Multiple causes may be at work. As we learn more about the results of global warming, science communicators will know which images to use with confidence and which to set aside.

Sometimes I joke that sifting through environmental news is a forbidding task. Depending on what is going on in the world, it can be intimidating to log into Twitter, visit RSS feeds, and see what is happening.

What keeps me motivated? Among the reports of mayhem, I can see there are solutions. Environmental writing doesn’t have to be all about apocalypses. We can rewrite the stories, retool how we build things, and solve the problems we face.

Out there on the Internet are some of the answers to this question: how can we communicate effectively about environmental issues? I’ve gathered them together into a green communication guide. The guide addresses both newswriting and nonprofit communication (with an emphasis on newswriting).

Many of the articles in the guide are surprising and even controversial. From dispatches from the cutting edge of  journalism to articles on how to bring environmental views into the mainstream, this guide has tips that may be useful for a wide range of media professionals.

Of course, the guide is not intended as a substitute for attending professional conferences, joining associations like Society of Environmental Journalists, or taking journalism and public relations courses. DIY is valuable, but it only goes so far.

I encourage you to bookmark, share and/or forward the guide if you find it useful. I plan to expand it periodically as I see new resources appear online. If you have suggestions about articles to add to the list, please post a comment.


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A recent article claiming that 84 percent of one’s Facebook page fans are lurkers raised an interesting question for me. How does one get communities to “gel” online? What are some of the tricks of the trade that help web communication professionals engage their audiences?

The ideas below are based on my experiences with organizing meetups, including NetSquared Boston; producing news content for an online community of graduate students and professors; and building the audience of an energy-related newsletter.

1. Make Your Most Important Content Visible

Journalists know that the first few seconds of reading will determine whether your audience reads the whole article or puts down the paper. Your title, subheading, and any content that is highly visible will attract readers’ attention.

Here are a few tips:

  • Choose clear, attention-getting headlines
  • Test your web content using the Five Second Test
  • Think about the first sentences you use
  • Choose interesting topic headings

2. Organize Your Site Logically

Take a look through a website usability guide and use those principles to organize your content clearly. Will a new visitor to your site know where to find information? Try to keep the number of levels in your site map to a minimum. This will make it easier for website visitors to find the content they need.

3. Use Your Audience’s Favorite Media

If you know how your audience already finds information, you can communicate with them using their preferred media. For many audiences in the United States, e-mail is still the best way to present information. If you make your content conversational and entertaining, you can also use Facebook to reach a large audience. Sites like Twitter and Quora can give you access to professionals in specialized fields like journalism and IT. Some audiences spend long hours on YouTube.

If your audience isn’t RSS-literate, they won’t subscribe to your blog’s news feed. On the other hand, if your audience knows how to subscribe to your meetup calendar, they may be watching all of your events without even being members of your meetup. Twitter users may add you to private lists without following you openly.

4. Build Your Niche

What does your website provide that other websites do not? Is your meetup unique, or is it the same as another meetup in the next town? Like running a business, running an online community requires that you provide added value. You should make your content easy to use and worthwhile.

If you have a niche for which there is not much demand, recast your focus so that it addresses needs that people know exist. You may be absolutely convinced of a need that others don’t see or recognize; this will make your job more difficult. I’ve seen scientists experience this problem often. Simplifying your message and making it convincing can help your website gain support.

5. Know Your Audience’s Priorities

Knowing the priorities and values of your audience can help you move your website into their “to visit” list. What do they need to know? Can you make their lives easier by providing networking or useful information? If your site looks like a resource library, you should work to make your content more immediately useful and action-oriented.

Some audiences dislike spending time online and will not surf in search of resources. Other audiences may own mobile phones but not computers. The more you know about what matters to your audience, the easier it will be for you to integrate your site or community into their everyday workflow.

Ask your audience what they want to see. You may be surprised. I used a poll in a meetup recently. I discovered – unexpectedly – that most of the respondents wanted to do outdoor activities this spring and summer. Because I did this poll, I’ll schedule the kinds of activities they requested.

When teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

When I jazz information up to present it in this blog, I’m aware translating science can be risky. When I started introducing myself as a journalist at parties, some people backed away. There’s a perception that professional communicators aren’t trustworthy – and that polishing information for presentation makes it less real or less reliable.

I put some grit into the branding for this website because I am used to working with skeptical factory workers and scientists who distrust marketing’s varnish and gloss. I wanted to show people who value authentic and direct presentation of information that I do speak their language.

However, even though I speak their language, I still polish it. This puts me between multiple cultures. I see “facts-only” presentation as a statement of its own – either a statement that the presenter hasn’t had communication training or a statement that they are speaking to an audience which values facts.

There is no completely objective way to present information. One can seek facts supporting multiple viewpoints; that’s balanced journalism. But using the formats and buzzwords that convey scientific neutrality is a cultural statement; one could put data in Comic Sans font without changing the facts.

Marketers and nonprofit professionals have their own buzzwords too. The use of the word “outreach” instead of “marketing” is my favorite example of how social justice organizations avoid advertising language. This poses a challenge for me when I am thinking about advertising, branding and promotion for nonprofits.

Information technology (IT) buzzwords are especially difficult to translate. I’ve had several conversations with nonprofits in which I explained the value of crowdsourcing (as well as its occasional disadvantages). Other concepts, such as research database sharing, are less easy to describe. For nonprofits with few resources, sharing databases internally or externally makes sense, but this resource sharing doesn’t happen very often in organizations I know.

I organize a meetup, NetSquared Boston, with the goal of sharing information about media and technology innovation with Boston nonprofits. This meetup is one example of IT resource sharing. But it’s difficult to promote ideas like this when IT vocabulary is new to nonprofits.

While buzzwords can establish credibility, I believe competent researchers should also be able to translate their work into simple explanations. In my conversations with scientists, I find that they do this with their families and friends often.

Science translation is an ongoing and enjoyable challenge. But it isn’t just a translation of science; it’s a translation of workplace culture and values. Translating culture is a much more complicated art than simplifying vocabulary.

I learn from each encounter with a new culture and value those experiences.

Social media are changing the dynamics of science communication. If you visualize communication as a flow chart, the arrow is no longer pointing in just one direction. Here are some examples.

  1. User interface design research shows how much readers appreciate audience-oriented websites. When the creators of Facebook wanted their site to become popular, they didn’t design a website with pages for each of their departments; they focused on user interaction. Audience goals and interests determine the site design.
  2. Social media outreach requires time; it is an ongoing community-building project. In the past, organizations would post reports online and expect readers to track them down. Today, many readers seek out groups that will communicate with them. Static content isn’t as attention-getting as it was a few years ago.
  3. If you’re interested in science or research but don’t have a degree in the field, you can participate in online citizen science projects, wiki writing and crowdsourced fact-checking. In the 1980s, these opportunities didn’t exist yet.

Changing the social dynamics of science has both positive and negative effects. Unscientific America points out that there are many unreliable sources competing with more accurate ones for air time. Reviewing content collaboratively can address many of these issues, but quality control is also important. Some websites, including Quora, are making sustained efforts to provide reliable answers. If someone posts on Wikipedia that a UFO landed at the royal wedding in Britain, it’s likely that an editor will fix the entry.

Last week, I had a coffee chat with a communications professional who reads this blog. She suggested I write a post about user interface design. I jotted down the idea and let it percolate for a few days.

When I sat down to write the post this morning, I realized I was bored. The “zing” that I seek in a blog topic was missing. Writing about the technical aspects of user interface design without their communications context is like having lemon water without the lemon.

Lemon water
User interface design can add zest to your website.

The real juice of user interface design, in my experience, is in the communication and audience interaction. Anything you add to your website – whether it’s a flash animation, a newspaper-style layout, a poll or a blog post – should serve your communication goals. What actions do you want your audiences to take?

Designing an attractive user interface that doesn’t advance your goals is like sticking a lemon rind on the edge of a glass but not putting the juice in. Some extra features may sound appealing, but their whiz-bang effects will fall flat if audiences don’t share your enthusiasm.

Clarity is essential in user interface design. The BBC says your readers may have the attention span of a goldfish, so be careful not to wallpaper your front page with acronyms and obscure links. You only have a few seconds to get their attention and keep it. Think about the central messages you want to share.

Your organization has a personality. Let it show. If your organization was a guest at a party, how would it behave? What conversations would it start? Which other guests would it approach – and why? And what color would it wear?

Your website is like a party invitation, too. What kind of party will it be? Will it be a porch cookout or a black tie gathering? What do you want your guests to tell their friends after they leave?

Your guests will participate if they value what you are offering them – whether that’s networking opportunities, energy efficiency games, or corn on the cob. (If you’re doing outreach related to agriculture, that last comment is serious.) If they have a good time visiting your site, they’ll be back – and they’ll bring their friends.

Putting zest in your site design can help motivate your audiences to participate actively and share your content with others.