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Public engagement 1: Know your audience!

This month sees the first in a series of articles from Hassun El-Zafar, our Public Engagement Officer, telling us about the importance of knowing your audience when planning public engagement activities. If you’d like to get in touch or share your thoughts with Hassun you can find him on Twitter @HassunElZafar or email at Unfortunately, since leaving the North, he is unable to take messages via Owls or Ravens.  

We all love public engagement. Or, at least, we all should love public engagement. After all, what’s not to love about the idea that contemporary, boundary-pushing and pioneering research is made accessible for the public, rather than being known only to an exclusive pocket of research, academic or industry experts?

Over the past seven months, I’ve had the privilege to lead on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s public engagement activities. It’s been a phenomenal ride in which I’ve been able to meet, connect and work with many fantastic individuals and organisations across the UK and world. And by doing so I’ve being able to have some honest reflections on the impact of mainstream public engagement in science, particularly in the chemical sciences.

Before I delve into these reflections, it’s worth mentioning that prior to my post here at the Royal Society of Chemistry, I worked as a secondary science teacher and ran several outreach programmes in numerous inner-city areas across south Yorkshire. I was the type of teacher who’d voluntarily run STEAM clubs, science weeks, and organise informal extra-curricular events for students and parents to meet with STEAM industry and research experts. And yes, I was unapologetically that science teacher who’d find any excuse to do the biggest, most colourful and impressive science demonstrations. 

I believed then, as I do now, in Maya Angelou’s beautiful quote in which she states that ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. I think this quote helps build a metaphorical scaffold for my reflection, and a link to the grander overview of science engagement. After all, there is, and probably never will be, one singular viewpoint of how science engagement is best done. But I’d like to think that we could all at least agree that if an audience feels bored, condescended to or intimidated by our approaches, then something needs to change.

On that note, here’s the beginning of my five-part blog (I promised to not overdo them like the Fast and Furious movies!) where I’ll share my thoughts on public engagement. I’d love to hear from you too! You can get in touch via Twitter @HassunElZafar and email

Blog One: Know Your Audience
Let me set the scene.
I’m at my desk in the RSC offices with a fair trade banana and Yorkshire Tea cuppa by my side.
The phone rings.
I answer enthusiastically, and it’s our keen member Tim (not a real person). He’s got a fantastic idea to engage the general public with climate science (#ClimateActionNow) and would like us to support his idea with £10,000, a room in Burlington House on a weekday evening, and some complimentary wine and canapés (yummy!).
I listen attentively to the plans that feature invited high-profile university professors, PhD students, and international industry experts delivering seminars and lectures throughout the evening. When he’s finished I ask one simple question… “Who’s the target audience, Tim?”
“Oh, it’s a free event, anyone can attend! So the general public!”
“But you’re inviting 56 people in a venue which has a capacity of 60…”

I must reiterate in the strongest way possible that this is not a real incident, but it is based on bucket loads of interactions I’ve had.

Knowing your audience is important. Being honest about who your audience is is even more important. As the head of one of the largest science festivals once told us, “the majority of people at Comic Con are most likely comic fans, and the majority of people at a mainstream science festival are most likely science fans. We should embrace that and use it to inform practise, rather than shying away and pretending to do something which we’re not”. These words hit a chord. Perhaps public engagement doesn’t have a right or wrong audience (because all humans, including scientists, are part of the public after all), but good public engagement does have a specific audience, which it aims to have an impact towards.

Here’s a little activity: next time we’re about to do a public engagement activity/event/campaign, write down who the target audience is, and try to be as specific as possible. Common terms such as “high science cultural capital” and “young people” are popular, but are actually pretty vague. For example, the term "young people" can encompass anyone aged 0-35 (and that’s being harsh on anyone over 35…) and in that group you have toddlers, primary children, KS3 students, GCSE students, A-level students, undergraduates, post-graduates, postdocs, PhD students, “young working professionals”, young backpackers, young tourists, “the science museum's lates date audience” or more broadly speaking, the total of approximately 32 million people in the UK alone.

The more specific the target audience, the more tailored the activity will be to meet their needs, which means the activity will probably be more impactful in shaping perceptions, advancing understanding and changing behaviours (trust me, I was rated outstanding by OFSTED for a reason).

Now, there may be some people reading this with the thought that I’m wrong, and that something like a “one size fits all” approach can work. It probably does to some extent. I mean, there’s a reason why millions of people still watch TEDx videos, right? But even then, the best TEDx speakers know their audience (Donovan, 2012).

Subsequently, knowing your audience is great, but in the next blog I’m going to argue that it may not be enough. Should we be moving away from a model where we create for an audience to a model we create with an audience?

Posted by Aurora Walshe on Mar 2, 2020 2:05 PM Europe/London

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