Knowing, and naming, your audience (with “lay audience” poll results)

Last week, I asked for advice on preferred terminology for what’s often referred to as a “lay audience”.  I’d been uncomfortable with that term, because to some ears it carries an unfortunate implication of scientists as a priesthood.  I did wonder, to be honest, whether I might be the only one who cared, but that clearly isn’t the case – responses were thick and enthusiastic both in the Replies and on Twitter.  (Only 5% of poll respondents picked the option “Holy overthinking it, Batman”.)  I’ll report here on the poll results and on the other suggestions people offered for better terminology.  But I’ll also build from that to a more general and very important point about writing – one that emerged from discussion around the poll that was, happily, much more interesting that I expected.  If you’ve been hanging around here, you may have noticed I’m kind of interested in writing.

First, what terminology do people like for a “lay audience”? Here are the poll results.


Of the options I offered, the favourite by far was “general audience”, and I’ll be using that term in my book proposal*.  “Lay audience” was indeed unpopular. But every term I offered had its advocates (even “lay audience”) and over two dozen other possibilities were suggested.  Here are some of them:

  • Wider society
  • Civic society
  • Anyone who is interested in science
  • All of us
  • Fellow citizens
  • Friends
  • Curiosity seekers
  • Curious citizens
  • Non-experts
  • Public audience
  • Inquisitive-minded people
  • People outside the scientific enterprise
  • General public
  • Public audiences
  • Those curious about thing X
  • The audience
  • Citizen scientists
  • Grand audience
  • Broad audience
  • People who don’t do science for a living
  • Science consumers
  • Science literate audience
  • Science fans
  • Science faithful

There are two interesting patterns here.  First is the diversity of suggestions (and the passion with which some of them were put forward).  This suggests that the terminology we’re looking for is both important and difficult.  It just isn’t trivial to come up with a term for a “lay audience” – that is, an audience of people who are not practicing, professional scientists, or at least who lack advanced training in science – that’s clear, succinct, and respectful.  But people care very much about getting this right.

The second pattern is that many respondents reject the very notion of naming (at least out loud) the “lay audience”.  You can see this in many of the deliberately inclusive terms: “inquisitive people”, “everyone”, “all of us”.  I completely understand the instinct to downplay the distinction between scientists and non-scientists. It’s what lay behind my initial discomfort with “lay audience”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s a problem if the public thinks of scientists as a people apart. But – and you knew I was coming to a “but” – I think these more inclusive terms fail for two reasons: a local one, and a global one. [A few incisive commenters picked up on the finer distinction here, suggesting two different terms, one to solve each problem.]

The local problem arises from the reason I put up my original post: I need a term to use in a book proposal, to describe my target audience.  I can’t say “it’s for everyone” – that’s just not how a book proposal works! Or rather, I guess I could; but the acquisitions editor would just assume (reasonably enough) either that I hadn’t thought about who my audience was, or that I was hopelessly naïve about the publishing industry.  Of course, this is a local issue to me and my book proposal; if you’re not writing one, you might not think you should care.  But I think you should, because of my more global reason.  When you write – when you write anything – you should be thinking about your audience, and what they bring to the table in your joint effort at communication.  If you write about population genetics of polar bears (let’s say), you might be writing a piece for the field-specific journal Molecular Ecology, for the cross-disciplinary journal Nature, for the science-generalist magazine American Scientist, for the popular magazine National Geographic, or for your local newspaper.  Each of these implies a distinct audience, with different (on average) background knowledge, vocabulary, comfort with mathematics, tolerance for jargon, and so on.  If you ignore these distinctions and thus don’t identify your audience, you won’t be working effectively with that audience to communicate.  In this sense, insisting on an inclusive term for a hypothetical audience doesn’t seem respectful at all.  It actually seems disrespectful, because it refuses to recognize, and meet, the needs of your readers.

So: my poll was (of  course) totally unscientific, but it’s helped me quite a bit.  I’ve settled on the term I’ll use (“general audience”). I’ve learned that no matter what term I choose, it won’t please everyone, and that I’ll need to explain it carefully.  And I’ve found a way to relate my admittedly parochial question about how to phrase my book proposal to a universal problem in good writing.  Works for me.

© Stephen Heard ( February 13, 2017

*^Remember (if you read the original post), this whole thing came up because I needed a term to use in a book proposal.  If you didn’t read the original, I’ll save the trouble of clicking back there:  it’s a book tentatively titled The Strangest Tribute, which will tell some of the stories behind Latin names that honour people – explorers, naturalists, heroes, and occasionally bums.  We think of Latin names as stodgy and dull.  To be sure, some of them are; but others tell amazing stories, if we let them speak.  You’ve seen a few examples here on Scientist Sees Squirrel – for instance, names in honour of Maria Sibylla Merian and of Charles Darwin and William Spurling.

3 thoughts on “Knowing, and naming, your audience (with “lay audience” poll results)

  1. roots & rhizomes

    I like especially your point about audience you are approaching by your paper (or by your conference talk, lecture) – it very much affects wording and framework ….even presenting to scientists we should distinguish whether they are from the same narrow field or not.
    Thanks Jitka


  2. Morgan Jackson

    Great follow up, and interesting to see the diversity of suggested terminologies. Because apparently my mind just can’t let this go, I recently stumbled on the term “greater public” while I was probably supposed to be thinking about something else, and which I kind of like. Implies that the proposed audience is larger than the specialist group, while also having a nice positive tone to it. Not sure it’ll ever see any real use, but I think I’ll give it a try the next time I’m in need of a broad audience descriptor.



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