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How to pitch to your target audience in research

Man presenting to an engaged audience in a lecture hall
Illustration by Alvin Yanga

We know that academic researchers like yourselves are all extremely busy people.

You’re often pulling long hours, trying to juggle absolutely everything. 🔬

With so many things on your plate, it’s no wonder that many reach for that same old scientific poster or present those overused set of slides at EVERY conference.

Really, who is able to refine their story to fit a new target audience each time?


You can, in fact.

It’s important that we invest time into refining our science communication and delivery so that our messages are loud and clear for the right audience.

One size does NOT fit all!

So let’s take the time to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. 👞

Why is it so important to pitch to your target audience?

Communication is critical to good science practice, and knowing your audience is an essential skill for mastering effective science communication. 🗣

Tailored communication also means that your audience will not only be interested in what you have to say, they will understand your key message, and also appreciate its importance.

On top of that, when you learn how to confidently and engagingly deliver your research, you will be surprised at the opportunities that can unfold: research collaborations, funding success, job offers and so much more. 🤯

Shocked GIF

Even though targeted communication in undoubtedly beneficial to your career, many researchers unfortunately aren’t putting the time into understanding their audience.

How to understand our audiences

So, what should I consider when getting to know my audience, you ask?

Your audience could be a single person, like:

  • a journalist

  • a potential investor

  • or even a decision maker

Or a group of people, like:

  • patients

  • school children

  • or a large conference hall filled with scientists

No matter who your audience is, you want to deliver a clear, engaging and tailored message!

Here are the top 3 things we suggest you think about when getting to know your audience. 👬👭👬👭

1. Audience Age

This one may be obvious, but it is extremely important!

The age of your audience, particularly up until the age of about 25, will drastically affect your delivery; from the body language you use, to the level of detail you provide, to the types of stories and analogies you use.

Children tend to have a shorter attention span, and their vocabulary is less advanced. Therefore, it can be more challenging to convey your message to a younger audience.

But what do children like?

Stories. Pictures. Toys. Interaction.

So keep this in mind and include these elements to maximise engagement of a younger audience.

For example if you are explaining gravity to a small classroom of primary school aged children, maybe you will bring along a ball, ask questions and sit on the floor to connect with them at their level. Whilst in a physics conference it might be a bit weird to sit on the floor for your presentation. 🤔 Or would it be? 😂

Male presenter sitting on the floor holding a ball engaging with a classroom of school kids
Illustration by Alvin Yanga

Adults, on the other hand, like to be challenged, they have a longer attention span and the comprehension to understand the finer complexities of a topic. Don’t get me wrong adults still appreciate a story and interaction. 😉 But you have the ability to delve deeper into the topic without loosing your audience.

So our first suggestion is to always consider the age of your audience!

At a certain point though age starts to become less relevant, for example your pitch might be very similar for both a 30-year-old and 60-year-old, the consideration here becomes more about their scientific literacy and technical background. Which brings us to our next point!

2. Education and technical background

Let’s talk about the level of education and technical background of your audience.

Sometimes you can easily assume the technical background of your audience. For example, you can safely assume that a kindergartener will have minimal technical background and will require basic explanations. 👧🏼 Whilst other times you may need to dig a little deeper to understand your audience’s level of education and background as relevant to your field. 📚

For instance, imagine you are standing next to your poster at a general scientific conference and two individuals approach, interested in your research. How do you know how much detail to give, will they understand the jargon? How do I tailor my delivery for them? 😧

Don’t worry, no need to turn into Sherlock Holmes. 🕵️‍♂️

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Start a conversation. Rather than jumping straight into your memorised spiel, try a little back and forth. Ask them what bought them over? If they are familiar with your topic? How they are finding the conference? What they are working on? 🔬

This will help you figure out whether they are professors in the field, whether they are PhD candidates in an adjacent field or whether they are part of the press team and are looking for stories to write about. 🙌🏼

By understanding the level of education and technical expertise you can adapt the type of language you use and the amount of detail you provide.

3. Setting

Lastly, think about the setting, this is an important one, as it can change the way you approach the exact same audience.

Most of the time when you consider pitching to your audience, you probably think of a conference, where you are pre-prepared, aware (for the most part) who your audience will be. But pitching to your audience can also be impromptu, unprepared and unscripted.

In this instance you need to pitch on the fly.

Maybe you jumped in the elevator and the CEO of Big Pharma is standing there with their assistant. What do you do go?

Woman in business attire pitching to a man and a woman in an elevator
Illustration by Alvin Yanga

Maybe you stand there dumbfounded and waste an opportunity to make an impression. Or maybe you introduce yourself, and strike up a meaningful conversation which leads to a long-lasting collaboration. ✨

The choice is yours!

Whether it’s in an elevator, at a fancy dinner party or on the train - being aware of the setting will help you gauge the formality, the type of conversation, and will dictate the length of time.

Disclaimer, There is a time and place for everything! It is not always the right time to try and pitch yourself. Maybe that CEO was on an important phone call. Read the room and do not interrupt - It will not leave a good impression.

Now you know who your audience is, what’s next?

What you want vs What they want

Now that you have a better understanding of your audience you can better answer the question ‘what do they want?’.

Maybe they are a journalist, and they want a good story.

Or maybe they are a researcher wanting to expand their knowledge for their career.

Or maybe they are an investor and want to choose a wise investment to back.

Or maybe they are a patient wanting to learn more about their disease.

Once you have a clear idea of what it is that your audience wants you can communicate in that space and establish a meaningful connection.

Venn diagram of what you want vs what I want with connection in the intersection

The goal is to find the intersection between what you want and what the audience wants. For instance, if you are at a conference you may want to promote your recent publication to increase exposure and citations.

However, most of the scientists at the conference want to learn something that will help propel their career. Keep in mind we are all a bit selfish. 😂

So give the audience with what they want! Explain that ground-breaking technique they could use. Explain that dead end which would be a waste of their time. If they take something useful away they are more likely to read and cite your paper, therefore giving you what you want!

By providing value to your audience, they are more likely to engage with you and therefore give you what you want.

It’s all about give and take!

Adjust the level of detail

Scientists love detail! We all know this, because sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. 😬

whoopsies GIF

But unless the audience is predominantly other scientists in your field, it is unlikely that they will want, or even understand, all of that detail!

Understanding their age, prior knowledge and how much time you have will help guide the level of detail required.

Generally for a non-expert audience: LESS IS MORE — think big picture, use analogies to help communicate complex topics, tell a relatable story, use visuals, put yourself in their shoes.

By leaving out some of the detail it also provides an avenue for easy questions. 😉

Often, people believe that in order to look intelligent and accurately communicate their findings they need to use fancy terminology and technical jargon. When in actual fact the opposite is true. This often leaves your audience feeling stupid, and they will switch off. To be able to simply explain a complex topic to a non-expert audience is an incredible skill.

Quote from Albert Einstein saying If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough

On the other hand, if you assume too little background knowledge and over-explain everything you run the risk of losing your audience’s attention, or worse; belittling them. 🙈 For example if you are talking to clinical researchers in the field of cancer, a 15-minute explanation on basic cell division is overkill.

You don’t want to make your audience feel stupid. 🙅‍♀️

Both extremes have the potential to make your audience feel stupid. Therefore, it is paramount to tailor the level of detail and amount of technical language used specifically to your target audience and strike the perfect balance!

Quote from Roger Aines and Amy Aines saying Start from where your audience is, not from where you are.

Get to the point!

So fun fact, the best way you tell your story to time-poor individuals is actually to tell it backwards! 🤯

Scientists are trained to communicate with other scientists and often explain their findings in chronological order, or as it would look in their paper.

‘First we knew this, but this part was missing, so we hypothesised this might happen, so we used experiment X to test, which showed xyz, and therefore we concluded blah.’

WOW, that was long! But at least we had the ABT in there. 😉

Unfortunately, the majority of a time-poor audience will zone out before you even get to the good part.

Inverted pyramid communication method showing that scientists prefer a Background, results, discussion method. Whilst the general public prefer a reverse method of takeaways, details, background.

So try it in reverse, tell them the conclusion first, tell them why they should care first, tell them the most important takeaways, the big picture! Then explain the details, your exciting results, how you got there and connect this with the background, and what we already know.

This structure is extremely effective with journalists and businessman. In fact, this is how media releases are written!

Keep your audience engaged tell your story backwards. ✨

Tell a story

Story time! The best way to engage your audience and keep them listening is to tell a story, a really, REALLY good story. One that evokes emotion!

Everyone likes stories, and let’s face it they are easier to remember than raw facts.

Think about some of the things we have learnt from well-known movies:

  • Finding Nemo - We learnt that only the tentacles of jellyfish are venomous, but the tops aren’t. Remember Dory bouncing on the tops! 🐟

  • Lion King - We learnt that a group of Lions is called a pride. 🦁

  • Lilo and Stitch - We learnt that the Hawaiian word Ohana means family. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

All of those fun facts were interweaved in a captivating story — you probably never noticed you were learning while your eyes were glued to the screen!

When choosing your story or what emotion to ignite you want to tailor it to your specific target audience. A group of children for example, might enjoy a feel good story about a lion going on an adventure to find courage… oh wait that’s the storyline of Wizard of Oz. A great analogy for explaining how children with leukaemia feel scared and lost.

Wizard of Oz GIF

However, when presenting to a group of tenured professors you might tell a more factual recount with a sad storyline focusing on a specific patient, Olivia, with leukaemia, to pull on some heart strings.💔

Remember to keep your story to the point, its purpose is to help communicate your main message. You’re trying to engage your audience, not put them to sleep.

Take-home message

So to summarise, tailored communication in extremely beneficial to your career, building your profile, disseminating your research and providing unparalleled opportunities.

Transform your communication into a beautiful masterpiece by:

  • Understanding who your audience is

  • Tailoring the style of delivery and level of detail accordingly.

  • Telling a story to capture your audience’s attention.

Cinderella magical transformation GIF

Want to learn more about public speaking and storytelling?

We would love to share all our tips with you in one of our online or in-person science communication workshops!

With an underlying focus on science communication and story telling, attendees develop proficient communication skills and possess the ability to turn their complex science into simple stories that will reach, resonate and persuade both expert and lay audiences. But we need your help by recommending us to your institution!

Here’s what one of our satisfied universities have said about our workshops:

Excellent workshop, very informative. Have developed some very useful skills for future presentations and media interactions.”


-University of Adelaide

If you’re interested in learning the art of storytelling, get in touch with us!

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