Have you ever wanted a redo on your #SciComm? #SciRevival is a series where I reflect on my past work and try to make it better. School papers, projects, blogs, articles – all fair game. This blog was written for a new media course during my Masters in Science Communication. It was highly academic, and I refused to use illustrations – this is a (slightly) more casual take.
We all want to change the world.
I used to dream of standing up at rallies for climate change denial or posting to anti-vaxx message boards. I would come prepared with an eloquent speech that championed science and critical thinking. I would build powerful arguments as, one by one, heads turned towards me. These dreams would end with overwhelming applause as you could actually see opinions change to have faith in science. Global warming emissions plummet, vaccination rates soar, and scientists become the new celebrities.
I still dream of these impacts, but not quite so idealistically. That’s not to say I don’t want to change behaviour. It’s just that changing behaviour, apparently, takes more than just an eloquent speech. It requires thoughtful and purposeful planning. It requires you to step up – one step at a time. One of the most impactful lessons I learned in school was how to use the World Health Organization’s audience analysis chart to plan for these steps.
Know your audience
Everyone is different. Your beliefs, your values, what you already know, and your actual situation will all impact how you interpret the message being thrown at you. This is why “know your audience” is basically the motto of science communication. Your audience is who you are trying to talk to; this WHO chart helps you understand how someone might interpret your message by organizing people into four groups. These groups depend on whether people agree with your cause and how much they care about that belief.
- Blockers are active resistors who oppose your cause. They are the ones screaming on the other side of protests or family dinner tables.
- Champions are active supporters who passionately agree with your cause. These are the champions who donate money, show up to rallies, and avidly retweet.
- Avoiders are passive resistors. They disagree with the cause but don’t usually act on it.
- Silent boosters are passive supporters. They agree with the cause but would rather not cause waves or say anything about it.
These groups can apply to anything. Considering what your specific audience believes and where they may fall on this chart helps you develop a plan for who you are talking to.
Remember that it’s not you against the world
Although sometimes it may feel like it, a lack of visible supporters doesn’t mean that everyone is against you.
The example I often turn to is vaccination hesitancy. Think first of the people writing articles about vaccine development, tweeting #VaccinesWork, or actually providing the vaccines: these are our champions. Although everyone is not a champion, that doesn’t make the rest of the world anti-vaxxers (or blockers in the WHO’s chart). In fact, silent boosters are just as crucial to protecting our community. These are the ones who quietly receive all recommended vaccinations. You can’t hear them, you may not be able to see them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t supporting your cause.
For vaccinations, the potential for action is the most promising. Science communication efforts often focuses on the avoiders, not the blockers, for this very reason. They are the ones who don’t currently get vaccinated because it “doesn’t matter” or it’s just “too much effort.” They’re right on the verge of believing, and are ready to step up.
Opinions shift in small steps
To change a blocker to a champion with one article is a lot to ask – too much to ask. You don’t go from believing vaccines kill to thinking vaccines are the biggest marvel in public health history overnight. The rule of thumb is that you can shift people one category: from a blocker to an avoider, or an avoider to a silent booster. You can help your audience by not forcing wildly different beliefs on them in one moment. Instead, focus on small changes and practical, realistic things they can start doing in their life.
Although these changes may seem small, each step has an impact. A blocker becoming an avoider means one less vocal voice persuading people to turn against science. An avoider becoming a silent booster means one more person getting vaccinated. As a communicator, you get to choose who you will focus on and what your goal is.
Choose your focus purposefully
This is the time to sit back and consider what you want to get out of your work. A good communications plan is specific: one intended outcome, one audience. This idea usually means choosing one of the WHO’s four groups.
Let’s get back to vaccination hesitancy. Many campaigns choose to focus on the avoiders to cause behaviour change and immediately affect vaccination rates. A campaign may focus on the avoider’s complacency by creating new schedules or reminder apps to make it easier to vaccinate your children.
However, a compelling message for avoiders may be entirely ineffective with blockers. If your goal is to decrease the number of blockers, a different campaign should be used.
I had the chance to develop a test science centre exhibit about vaccination hesitancy. The eventual exhibit had people press buttons to watch how vaccinations stop disease spread. The message was intended to be simple: “you can protect others by being vaccinated.” This message isn’t supposed to increase vaccination rates. Instead, we hoped the blockers would think about vaccines now being connected to their friends’ and family’s safety.
My exhibit wasn’t perfect. But choosing my audience and knowing what I wanted to say was a good first step to developing something that might one day work. In the end, the WHO’s audience analysis chart is just one more example of how you can know your audience.
Don’t worry about changing a country’s polls overnight or that one family member’s opinions over one holiday meal. Spend your energy where it can have a meaningful impact and choose your actions purposefully. Know who you are talking to and why you are having that conversation. Purposeful communication can cause meaningful change.
Let’s change the world one step at a time.