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3.6 There is no general public

When communicating science, it can be tempting to simply target the ‘general public’. After all, we want to try and reach everyone and we certainly don’t want to exclude anyone! However, after understanding the concepts of ‘capital’, hopefully you can now see how this is an idealists dream.

Imagine you have a guest coming round for dinner and you have to cook something for them. You ask who is coming but the only answer you get is ‘a member of the general public’. How do you decide what to cook? You have no idea if they eat meat or are vegetarian, what their likes are, or if they have any allergies. 

If you were able to narrow down this mystery guest to something even as vague as ‘7 year-old child’, you would probably have a better idea of what to cook. It’s the same with communication.

Human beings are so complex, each with so many different experiences, knowledge, interests, values, skills and so on, that trying to group them all together in one lump often fails. Instead we should realise that every decision we make about how we are communicating will narrow down our audience.

If you decide to write a popular science book, you immediately narrow your audience down to those who will actually read popular science books. Doing a podcast? That may be a different group. Hosting a science café? When you decide to have it will impact on who is available to come. Where you decide to have it will impact on who is able to travel there. And so on.

Targeting the ‘general public’ is a nicer way of saying that we haven’t actually targeted anybody! We haven’t considered how our choices have influenced who this particular communication is suited for. We haven’t tailored what we are doing so that it aligns with that persons ‘capital’. The usual result is that we end up aligning the communication with our own capital, rather than those we’re trying to reach!