How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Don’t Shoot the Audience

One of the largely unspoken rules in research communication is we acknowledge there should be different messages and approaches for different audiences — but will ignore that reality in our communications.

We will write a paper and point everyone to it, even though almost no one can access the full version (or understand it once they’ve accessed it).

We will pitch opinion content without understanding which of our audiences is persuadable by such means — and which it might alienate.

We will post threads that delight one key community but confuse or even anger others.

We do these things — we ignore reality — because…why? Charitably, because our approach to communications is often ad hoc and reactive, a hole to punch before we move on to the next piece of research.

In his recent book, “Think Again,” social psychologist Adam Grant likens persuasion to a dance. It’s not about bludgeoning an opposing mindset with facts or logic, Grant says; it’s about seeing the dynamic as a dance. You have to be flexible and responsive to the audience, because you are creating something together, with a shared goal of being heard as well as understanding.

For instance: Research suggests, says Grant, that making multiple arguments in support of a position is only effective with an audience that’s either not invested in the issue we’re discussing or receptive to our perspective. If the audience is already invested, the quality of argument becomes paramount — and if the audience is skeptical and invested, those multiple arguments come to feel like piling on, triggering defenses and even more skepticism.

Grant cites the example of an experiment he and other researchers ran for a university on a group of its alumni who had never donated. He tested two messages (give because it will do good vs. give because it will feel good) and both did equally well. Then he combined the two in another test…which did half as well as the single messages. “The audience was already skeptical,” he writes. “When we gave them different kinds of reasons to donate, we triggered their awareness that someone was trying to persuade them — and they shielded themselves against it. A single line of argument feels like a conversation; multiple lines can become an onslaught.”

Similarly, Grant says, asking skeptical audiences a question (e.g., “What worries you most about climate change?”) allows them to start to make their own case for taking action instead of rebelling against yours. And expressing modest rather than overwhelming epistemic confidence in our own assertions — acknowledging the things we still don’t know, and granting the parts of skeptics’ arguments that resonate with us — gives the skeptic space to move toward us as we dance.

Experts often know what’s right and want their audiences to rethink their uninformed positions. If you’re a public expert, though, you should first rethink whether those audiences are even receptive to an argument — or if you need to try rhetorically gentler, more collaborative approaches. As Grant says: “We don’t have to convince them that we’re right — we just need to open their minds to the possibility that they might be wrong. Their natural curiosity might do the rest.”

The way I like to think about it: Arguments are often (but not always) more effective for grasstops audiences. Skeptical audiences need to be invited to dance. So the next time you want to fire off an argument, think about what level you’re aiming for and whether this audience wants to be shot at or danced with. If you don’t know, put away your gun and extend your hand.