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Know Your Audience: an interactive exercise to move your visual science forward

You must know your audience to create any form of visual science communication!

You’re about to learn my go-to method for simplifying science for infographics. I teach it at every infographic workshop I do because it challenges people to go beyond what they already know and gives them a more accurate picture of how well others understand what they are saying. And even though this is particularly built for infographics, I think that the exercise you’ll find at the end of this article to be useful for all forms of visual science communication.

I’m going to be honest with you. This exercise makes people uncomfortable. But after every workshop, the same people who expressed worry tell me that it was the most effective part of the workshop. That’s because it pushes them outside of their comfort zone just enough to find opportunities to improve.

If you deviate from the exercise at the end of this article, your results may not be so great. This exercise is built and optimized to maximize your ability to determine important content and find problem areas in your descriptions.

I also want you to know that I use this exercise for every infographic I make. It’s incredibly humbling and incredibly helpful. No matter your level of expertise or experience with your topic or communication in general, you’ll find this exercise informative. That’s because it isn’t challenging your knowledge or ability in your topic; its challenging your understanding of your audience.

The importance of knowing your audience

Is it an understatement to say that this idea isn’t new? Every science communication workshop, course, or blog post will tell you how important knowing your audience is.

From age- and education-based to cultural and societal considerations, there is no equivalent to doing research about your audience. This is the single most important thing that you can do to improve your science communication.

But because this is so well-covered, I’m not going to harp on it here. Feel free to check out the resources linked to above to learn more.

However, I’ve developed a unique way to simplify your science through an exercise that you can tailor to each project that you do. As mentioned above, this exercise may take you out of your comfort zone, but in doing so, it will inform you on how you can improve that particular project. If done properly, it can also inform how to improve your project towards a specific group.

It’s important to know your audience, but its even more useful if you can gain insights into how to tailor your specific project to your specific audience. That’s the beauty of this exercise.

What (and who) you’ll need

For the following exercise, you’ll need a few simple things:

  • Another human
  • Pencil/Pen and Paper
  • A comfortable and fast explanation of your topic
  • A timing device (Cell phone will work)

We’re going to go through the first three so that you understand how to maximize each of the above items and get the most out of the exercise. But first let me tell you the general premise of the exercise.

The idea is to explain your topic in about 5 minutes and have a non-expert draw out what you’re explaining. I’ll give you more details on this as well as answer common questions at the end of this post.

Another human

The problem with being an expert is that we often forget how it feels when just starting to learn about a topic. I often feel like any time I go to a new place – whether its a restaurant or a science conference – there’s a bunch of new jargon and abbreviations to learn. Remember the last time this happened to you and how frustrating it was?

This exercise is NOT about reducing jargon. But it will help you identify jargon that you may not have realized you were using.

The best way to do that is to stop guessing.

That’s why you need another human, and not just any human. You need to find someone who is outside your field. The best person will be someone in your target audience. Writing for the public? Grab a non-scientist family member or neighbor. Writing for scientists outside your field? Ask a colleague.

Make sure that you let them know ahead of time that you’d like to explain your research to someone outside your field. If they are worried that they won’t understand, tell them that is exactly the reason you need them. Your job is to help them understand, and if they don’t understand, that gives you a wealth of information to improve your craft!

What your partner needs to know before you start

Let’s briefly go over what your partner needs to know before you get started.

  • Why you’re asking for their help
  • What’s expected of them
  • How their help is going to improve your work

Why you’re asking for their help: Hopefully, you already know your own personal answer for this. But if you are lacking the words, try this: “I’m making an infographic and would like to get the help of someone outside my discipline.” You can also let them know about this exercise, or show them the blog post. (Hi, Partner! Thanks for helping out this person!!)

What’s expected of them: Your partner will need to sketch down what you are talking about as well as they can. It works best if they limit the number of words and focus on trying to use symbols (arrows, circles, stars, etc) with labels to get the idea across. Every time I run a workshop, I find partners who have changed how the scientist decides to illustrate the topic in their infographic! Sketching is much quicker than writing, but it also gives you a lot more visual information to work with and expand upon.

How their help is going to improve your work: Make sure you explain to them that you need them because they are outside your field. You need someone with a different domain of expertise than your own. It’s going to allow you to make a better, clearer infographic. And it doesn’t hurt to offer to share it with them when you’re done with it.

Pen/Pencil and Paper

You can also do this digitally if they are more comfortable with that, but I find most people prefer to do this analog. The biggest reason for this preference? Because I’m going to ask for drawings! Not masterpieces, just little sketches.

Pen is better than pencil because when people have pencils, they tend to want to erase. There won’t really be time to erase, so it’s better to just put a squiggle through something wrong and move on.

If your partner is going to be working with you over the internet, that’s fine! They can draw, take a picture with their phone, and send it to you. They can also draw digitally if they want. Do whatever is most comfortable for your partner because most people are already going to be worried about how well they are drawing. If you can reduce that stress by working with them in a particular medium, it’s to your benefit because you’ll get better results.

The most important part of this is for you to get the original or a perfect copy of their work. It’s going to drive your next steps

A comfortable & fast explanation of your topic

By the time you read this, I’m assuming that you’ve thought about how you would explain your topic to someone in your target audience. If you haven’t started crafting that, stop right here.

In order to move on, the following steps must be taken:

  • You must know what your topic is
  • The explanation of your topic should be concise
  • You should have an idea of followup questions people might have about your topic
  • Practice your explanation multiple times to become comfortable with it

Just because you’ve crafted an explanation doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and if you’ve perfected your explanation for a medium other than infographics, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll transfer mediums without adjustment. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll need to make edits to your wording depending on which medium or media you choose.

Sticking to the time limit

The most common complaint when I do this exercise is “We need more time!”

Yes, you definitely do! With enough time, you could get the entire concept across in great detail so that your partner thoroughly understands the topic.

But you know what? You don’t have that luxury when making an infographic.

The restricted time limit forces you to focus on explaining your topic concisely and clearly. If you aren’t able to stick within the timeline, congratulations! You’ve gotten your first piece of feedback from the exercise.

Remember, this is what the exercise is all about, refining your message so that you can create an amazing infographic.

I typically give partners a short time limit, then give them a few (literally, 3-4!) minutes at the end for the partner to wrap up their drawing.

I know it’s tempting to go longer, but stick to the time limit and use the limitation as a lesson.

Know Your Audience! Let’s do this!

Once you have everything together, you should follow the below steps.

  1. Start a timer for 5-7 minutes.
  2. Give your partner an explanation of your topic.
  3. AS YOU EXPLAIN, your partner should be creating a drawing of what you’re saying (In other words, do not wait until the end to start drawing!!)
  4. Try to leave time for your partner to ask some followup questions and get some clarity. These questions can be incredibly informative to improve your wording!
  5. After the timer goes off, give your partner a minute or two to wrap up their drawing, but cut them off when that time has gone by.
  6. Have them show you the drawing and explain it back to you as best they can.

Extracting information about your audience

Great! You’ve gone through the exercise and gotten this drawing and maybe felt a little awkward. What now?

First, I’m proud of your for pushing forward. This is a learning experience. If everything went perfectly and you didn’t have any bumps along the way, then this exercise may be of no use to you. I hope that you got something out of it.

But what if you know something wasn’t quite right, but now you don’t know how to fix it. Let’s briefly talk about that.

The drawing you got from your partner is priceless! Look at the visuals they chose to use. Review how they organized the facts and connected the dots. What words did they think were important enough to write down? Are those words jargon or are they keywords that you should focus on?

Really try to dissect the image and pull out anything you can. It might even be a good place to start thinking about your infographic design (but don’t be tied to it. Remember, first drafts aren’t usually great, and even moreso from someone who isn’t an expert at the content).

If you haven’t already, use your explanation and this new way to know your audience to create a design plan for your infographic.

If you need help or feedback along the way, I offer consulting services that can give you a boost in the right direction!

What were the hardest parts of this exercise? Were there times you felt conflicted or confused? What lessons did you learn from your partner? Let me know in the comments!

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