Engaging younger audiences
by Jonathan Cooke
On 30 January 2020, 20 Stempra members came together to hear Lucy Eckersley, Sam Burne James and Dr Steve Cross as they shared the practices and techniques they employed to engage with younger audiences. The event was expertly organised and chaired by Fareha Lasker and the speakers were engaging both during their presentations and during the audience question and answer session.
Lucy Eckersley opened the evening by relating how her role at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) led to engaging with younger audiences on a daily basis; from introducing young school children to working with horses and engaging teenagers with clinical skills they may go on to use at university. The groups that universities target with outreach work are chosen as they are groups underrepresented within their graduate body.
Statistics covering what groups are underrepresented in a university’s graduate body are reported by the Office for Student guidelines. Lucy suggested one way to gain valuable outreach experience was to contact universities and learn what groups they want to get involved more.
Communicators must not only think about creating ‘new’ and ‘interesting’ ways to engage with younger audiences; it’s also important that we consider why those audiences may not have been engaged before, or the barriers that stop them from engaging. An example Lucy used was the experience of those applying to join veterinary college in handling animals. With work experience being part of the application, those who had had pets as children are more likely to be confident handling animals.
But for applicants who’d never had pets or interacted with animals, whether through choice or through circumstance (most rented housing doesn’t allow pets in the home for example) interacting with animals can be daunting, handling a dog for the first time can be scary. By running animal handling programs the RVC are hoping to overcome the barriers that some of their potential applicants may face.
Lucy wanted communicators to adjust away from the ‘deficit’ model way of thinking about underrepresented groups as ‘uninterested in science’. They are interested in science but we should do more to target the barriers. This can have the benefits of both increasing the accessibility and encouraging engagement in your subject.
Many communicators seem to think you need to have radically different events dependent on what age group/ audience you are targeting but this is simply not the case. Changing the language you use when introducing your event to be age-appropriate can make your event adaptable. Learn the language your audience communicates in; running focus groups with your target audience can help to refine the language you use and make your event more likely to be a success.
A possible group to recruit from for focus groups are children on work experience placements in your centres and workplaces. Nailing the language is key to avoiding a crucial mistake, condescension. Children of all ages will see communicators as adults, regardless of how ‘cool’ the communicators try to present themselves as.
Give your audiences the credit they deserve; younger generations are more politically and environmentally aware than we are, primarily because they are better at using and have greater access to the internet.
She reminded us that children can be scary, but that fear is something that fades as you continue to work with them. Younger audiences, especially teenagers, face a lot of difficult and confusing choices as they get older and just because they may not have told their faces to look engaged does not mean your work is not making an impact.
Build your communication around what they already know and what they might already be learning about. Link your science to their life experiences to make it more approachable and relatable. If you don’t know what your audience is learning about, go and find out for yourself. National curriculums are available online and all schools follow them. Chat to the teachers as well and find out how your communication can build into their work.
Sam Burne James relayed the safeguarding that needs to be considered when working with younger audiences and why wellbeing should be at the heart of any engagement event. Even private sector organisations need to ensure that those coming in to work for them are in a safe working environment. If you don’t, you put them at risk and you’ll receive a lot of negative PR if something went wrong!
Safe-guarding should be everyone’s business and is crucial to consider for all ages but especially when engaging younger audiences; from the bottom to the top of the organisation. It should never be left to one person to ensure that safeguarding policies are in place and are being considered. Familiarise yourself with you own organisation’s safe-guarding policies and question where they are if you can’t find them. If any journalist were to ask you about them you should be able to signpost them to the correct resources.
In many media organisations today, case studies are seen as a prime way to communicate messages out to a wider audience, whether it be the results of a successful trial or the outcomes of policy work. However when using such case studies we have to recognise consent from the case study participants is fundamentally important.
Certain topics must also have additional safeguards placed on top of them. A hypothetical scenario Sam gave would be how a charity that deals with suicide should choose to report any of their work that reports on deaths by suicide. In that instance, the reporting must be done in a way that is useful to the charities aims but also considerate of those who knew the person who committed suicide.
When considering the healthcare and medical community, most opportunities to engage with either the public or patients involve pre-existing pathways that can offer the opportunity to connect with younger audiences whilst providing adequate safeguards for both you as the communicator and those you are trying to reach.
When targeting young people for engagement, it’s worth considering that for many young people the biggest influence in their lives will be their parents. Running supplementary campaigns to specifically inform and engage these adults can increase the ‘science capital’ of your work, bringing the adults on board and helping them to understand its importance.
To conclude his talk, Sam reflected on the campaigns that organisations had released in the past targeting young people and if we as adults are groaning at them how must teenagers feel about these adverts trying to speak their language. Even concepts like iPods fall quickly out of the consciousness of young people.
Steve Cross began the final presentation of the evening by recounting his career in science communication so far and how for so long those who attempted public engagement only ever considered engaging with adults and not with teenagers or children. Nowadays many scientists and organisations are under pressure to provide some form of outreach alongside their work. However very few consider the reasons why they are doing outreach. Fewer try to plan where their work is best suited for outreach. Most simply choose what they consider to be the default for outreach initiatives, schools.
The consequence of this has been many schools, especially in London, rejecting any request from scientists who want to come in and talk to their children. These denials come from dealing with scientists trying to teach ideas that have no relevance to that child’s current education; for example, trying to explain quantum mechanics to 8 year olds and leaving the children more confused than engaged.
What we as communicators bring to children in terms of outreach should fit into the kid’s scaffold of learning, ensuring that what you bring is relevant to what that age demographic is learning in school.
Steve urged everyone to engage with the evidence base that is out there concerning engaging younger audiences. ASPIRES’ study on young people’s science education and career aspirations shows that the key barrier that faces children is not a lack of interest in science but them wondering if they have the right to be involved with science. Engaging with the data, and the experts won’t only improve your outreach; but will equip you to spot and prevent scientists at your organisation from engaging in bad outreach.
The audience was also asked to consider what it meant to evaluate their events and what they should be trying to capture. Too many engagement efforts have tried to measure how ‘inspired’ the children were or how many of the children they engage with grow up to be scientists. But these are both fundamentally unevaluable in the timeframe most outreach initiatives work under. We must instead choose to evaluate things we can actually measure on the ground, for instance, how many children actually enjoyed your event.
In concluding his talk, Steve urged communicators to be professional whilst conducting your outreach. It’s one thing to try and relate to your younger audience, it’s another to try and appear ‘cool’ in front of them. Don’t mistake what you and your friends might like for what kids like. Manchester United haven’t won any major trophies for several years; do not assume that all kids like Manchester United.
To conclude the evening, our three speakers answered fielded questions about effective representation, how to avoid coming off as condescending and how to engage with and react to difficult topics that might arise during your outreach.
Our panel stressed how important it was for accurate representation when engaging with different under-represented groups. Just because students from white, working class backgrounds and BAME students are underrepresented in university populations doesn’t mean they have equivalent experiences. As Lucy noted in her presentation, seeing that people who are the same as them are welcome in your organisation is especially important for younger audiences.
Our panel reflected the best way to avoid condescending to younger audiences is to engage with adults that already know your audience – maybe it’s their teacher or their parents – and build off that knowledge base. You don’t have to be a self-reliant expert, schools will already have plenty of information and advice you can draw from.
In addition, don’t be afraid to learn and take inspiration from the audience themselves. Teenagers can be confusing – and woe betide any communicator who thinks they know technology better than teenagers – but if you learn to roll with them trying to trip you up you can learn what works best for them.
Finally, our panel urged our members to consider the disclosure risks involved when interacting with younger audiences. Safeguarding works both ways and having your bases covered not only ensures your audiences safety but your own. You don’t want to improvise responses to sensitive subjects if a teenager discloses such things to you. Again, those who work in the areas you’re going into will have a better handle on the resources available to your audience and how they can access them.
When you’re interacting with underage kids you are in a position of care and responsibility, again, be prepared for what might arise and how you need to respond to it all. Consent forms can help you gain information on your audience and how to tailor the information as well. When talking about consent, you have to understand what your underage audience can legally consent to. Many of those you present with a consent form will never have been asked to sign one before, they need to be accessible, so your audience know what they are consenting to. Consent forms should be approachable, not terrifying. Making them accessible to your audiences is important so that they know what they are consenting to.
Stempra would like to thank our speakers for their time and advice in this tricky area. We would also like to thank all of our attendees. A collection of resources that were suggested by our speakers are listed below.
Recommendations for the evidence base:
ASPIRES – has stats and graphs you can shove under a scientists nose when you need to argue why you should and shouldn’t do things.
Centre of the Cell, Queen Mary University of London – a good example of targeting a specific group and tailoring your messages to them.