Engaging the Public
What Should I Expect from My Audience?
Even scientists experienced in public engagement walk into each new interaction unsure of what he or she will find. Will the given public be interested with the work being discussed? Will tensions surface and challenges arise?
Tensions: Despite generally favorable public attitudes regarding science, technology, and their benefits, tensions between science and society tend to emerge at the intersection of core human values and certain scientific fields — from human embryonic stem cell and global climate-change research, to the teaching of evolution. Expecting and preparing for some of these tensions to surface during public engagement events can help you feel more confortable when the time comes.
Challenging Ideas: Because public engagement involves a conversation between scientists and the public, you might encounter ideas that challenge your own. Listen to conflicting opinions and restate the case for scientific evidence as needed. Use a tone that is authoritative but friendly. Try not to escalate a direct challenge — you may unintentionally allow one voice in a crowd to achieve more credibility than it warrants by your response.
Q&A: When working with the public, you will inevitably encounter questions from audience members. While they may make you nervous, remember: you do want questions! Questions are a sign that the audience is engaged and confident that you have information on issues important to them, and they keep the conversation flowing. With forethought and planning, Q&A sessions can contribute greatly to a successfully conversation with the public. See this tip sheet for details on handling Q&A sessions.
Children (aka "Future Scientists"): Depending on the given public engagement activity, children may or may not be a part of the audience. Remember, to craft your message according to the audience and choose your words wisely to convey complex concepts. This becomes particularly important when interacting with children — a successful interaction could inspire their young minds!