On Writing and Audiences

by PhysicsJenn

Lately, I’ve started taking on some projects writing about physics experiments for a broader audience.  One piece I’m writing is for the general news section of a website, and the other is for news shared with collaborators and colleagues who are not necessarily in the same field, but are probably scientists or engineers.  This has gotten me thinking about how to gauge the audience of a piece and how to alter my explanations for a given audience.  It’s harder than it seems; as I’ve mentioned before, different words have different meanings to scientists versus non-scientists.

The first thing to think about is just how much science education the reader is likely to have had.  This seems obvious, but I think a lot of scientists, myself included, forget that most people have never had a class that covers quantum mechanics.  Think about how much advanced physics involves a reference to quantum mechanics and then think about how you would explain it without that knowledge.  Yikes, right?  So the biggest difference between the audiences for my two writing pieces is that one audience will recognize various quantum mechanics concepts, and another may not.  Now, plenty of people, especially those browsing science news websites, will have heard of certain ideas before, but they will not have been in the context of a class.

In the absence of formal knowledge of the advanced concepts, I find I fall back on analogies a lot.  No, none of them are perfect, but they’re a good way to give the rough idea of a concept without getting into “well, the math works out that….”  And analogies work regardless of the type of audience, as long as you have an idea what will be familiar and resonant with them.  For example, today I explained bosons and fermions in terms of dogs and cats.  Bosons and fermions aren’t specific elementary particles, but instead a way of classifying them.  So maybe a proton is a Persian cat and an electron is a tabby.  But they’re both cats (fermions).  This analogy has the fun quality of being extended because cats are solitary (Fermi exclusion) and dogs travel in packs (Bose condensation).  You can use more technical analogies for more technical audiences, but the concept is the same.  Compare an unfamiliar thing to something that the audience finds familiar and non-threatening.

Finally, when I’m writing for or talking to a general audience, one whose background I don’t necessarily know, I like to think about something David Kestenbaum said in a talk he gave at my university.  He said that someone once told him to think of the audience as that weird uncle who corners you at Christmas.  He isn’t stupid, but he probably hasn’t had higher than high school physics and he might be a little drunk.  In general, people like to hear things they already know, so if you underestimate the level of your audience, you probably won’t be chastised for aiming less technical rather than more.