Understanding the speaker Dr. Jamie Vernon as he talks about “understanding the audience”

Jamie Vernon
Dr. Jamie Vernon

“He is very young for his job as the editor-in-chief of American Scientist magazine, intelligent and opportunist. You must meet him!” – Dr. Beth Schachter described Jamie Vernon to me as I was showing off Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture to her in UT Southwestern’s NC building. I have known Beth for more than two years now and I certainly value her advice. So the moment I saw Jamie Vernon was giving a talk on “Understanding the audience” as part of Ashley Lakduk’s CoNNECT seminar series at UT Southwestern, I made a mental note to cover his talk.

Dr. Jamie Vernon’s title slide for his talk indicated his position as the Director of Science Communication and Publications, Sigma-Xi, The Scientific Research Society, in addition to his editorial job. (Note: Within a week of this talk Jamie was appointed as the Executive Director and CEO of Sigma-Xi).

Jamie’s talk was divided into three major sections: 1) His personal story of choosing science communication as a career, 2) Choosing specific type of audience and knowing them, and, 3) Golden rules of satisfying the audience.

Jamie’s personal story

An idea that changes one’s life, often comes from a self-inquiry after a major life event. As Jamie was finishing his Ph.D. studies in gene editing from UT Austin, his daughter was born 2 months early. Looking at his beautiful daughter strapped with several supportive tubes and devices made him think – “Am I doing everything in my life to help society?” Jamie realized that he always wanted to make a difference in climate change and working at the bench was not the way to address this.

He applied for and received the competitive AAAS Science and Technology internship that provided him the opportunity to work at the United States Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. and write articles on his interest in climate change. He started building his online profile in Twitter and followed his connections to understand their belief systems regarding climate change. His articles caught the attention of the Discover magazine and provided him the opportunity to learn from excellent science writers and editors. Ultimately, Sigma-Xi noticed his work and invited him to take the position of Editor-in-chief for the American Scientist magazine.

I noticed that Jamie’s hook for grabbing our attention (picture of his beautiful daughter) in the beginning of his talk was immediately successful. So was his story of choosing and thriving in the science communication career. By this time, every one of his audience in our lecture hall was excited about understanding their audience.

Choosing the audience and knowing them

Jamie shared that he addresses three questions to learn more about his audience: 1) “Who are they?”, 2) “Where do they get their information from?”, and, 3) “How would I get my information to them?” Essentially, for a science communicator, the audience is comprised of scientists, stakeholders, journalists, science-curious, science-agnostic and science-dismissive people.

Next, he took a small poll of the audience of his talk by asking us to select our audience based on five goals: defend science, educate, excite, build trust and persuade. On an average, there was an equal distribution among us for each of these five categories. Jamie smiled and added -“While most scientists think that they need to be in the first few categories, I encourage them to be involved in the last two.” I immediately felt relieved and excited as I raised my hand for the fifth category – persuade.

“The gap between the general public and scientists on key issues cannot be fully addressed by simply providing scientific information to defend science” Jamie mentioned. To further explain his claim, he described Dan Kahar’s matrix of categorizing the audience for science communication into culturally identifiable experts.

Culturally Identifiable Experts – What people tend to expect experts in different quadrants to look like.
How people view the risks associated with different issues at different points along the two dimensions of hierarchy-egalitarianism and communitarian-individualism.
(Source:Nancy Huynh,Cultural Cognition and Scientific Consensus, Yale Scientific, May 13, 2011)

So how do we build trust and persuade the audience that are agnostic and dismissive about our science? For Jamie’s case of climate change, these are the Hierarchist and Individualist people. He advised to use a 3-tier strategy.

First, we should carry out research on this subgroup of audience to understand their reasons for their beliefs. “Reach out to them. If possible call and visit them.” – Jamie suggested. Second, we need to find a common ground with these people. It can be the same city we visited or grew up or the same restaurant chain we like. This part informs the audience that we share their values. Third, we must create an opportunity for them. The final article should be written in a way that it fits their stories and reasons and sometime calls for an action on their part.

Jamie’s 3-tier approach to persuasive writing for the niche audience is somewhat similar to addressing Ethos, Logos and Pathos of the audience.

Golden rules to satisfy the audience

Based on my observation of the recurrence of the number “3” in other sections of Jamie’s talk, I was expecting there would be three golden rules to satisfy the audience. I was right.

“The first rule is to use data to understand your venue or platform” Jamie mentioned. This rule deals with finding a media outlet that we like, joining the audience, noticing their demographics, visiting their “about” section and finally, writing our own “about” section. For example, if we are writing our article in a magazine, the media pack of that magazine will give us the demographical data on their readers.

The second rule is to “meet your audience where they are.” Here, Jamie talked about not meeting at the physical venue but at the intellectual and emotional level of the audience. This part involves understanding the degree of comfort of the audience regarding certain topics, their values and their expected voice.

The third and final rule is to “take them where they want to go.” This part can be achieved by making the article personal to them. Using their own example and asking them a priori about what they want through a survey may come handy.

My final exercise in persuading Jamie

Having been just taught the art of understanding the audience and persuasive communication, I thought, “Why don’t I apply what I learnt on Jamie and try to persuade him to consider publishing an article that I will write in American Scientist?”

To my delight, Jamie agreed to have lunch with me in the ND14 cafeteria of UT Southwestern before he left for his flight back to Chapel Hill. While looking at the skyline of Dallas from the 14th floor and enjoying his chicken fried steak, he listened carefully and intently as I described my proposed article. Finally, he agreed to have a look at the evidences supporting this topic and described the steps in making the decision about whether or not to commit to publish this article in American Scientist.

Whether he agrees to move forward with my article or not, time will tell. But, I am sure that I just built a strong professional relationship with a young and talented science communicator. My Twitter feed carries the evidence for that.

(Initially published in the June issue of Postdoc Informer Newsletter at UT Southwestern Medical Center)

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With PhD in Molecular & Integrative Physiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Ann Stowe embraced translational research by pursuing postdoctoral training in a one-year clinical trial at the Landon Center on Aging, at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She then moved to Washington University in St. Louis to continue postdoctoral training in neurophysiology. Stowe joined UT Southwestern in 2010, where she is currently Assistant Professor in the Neurology & Neurotherapeutics Department. Stowe is invested in Science communication and Policy.

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