What Nuclear Fission Taught Me About Target Audiences


A number of years ago, I toured a commercial nuclear power plant with some colleagues. We spent the entire day touring the plant with nuclear engineers, seeing firsthand how a nuclear reactor splits uranium to create heat to boil water to create steam to turn a turbine which generates electricity. At the end of the tour, as we were standing over the pool of water that contained fuel rods, the tour guides asked if there were any additional questions. I said, “All of this, just to boil water.”

That received some quick, defensive statements from the engineers. It wasn’t meant to minimize the science and engineering behind nuclear reactors. But it underscored the point that sometimes you can boil down (pun intended) what you need to say to simple statements. In fact, sometimes your audience demands it.

Before you craft your message, you need to know your audience and know your goals. In this example, if you were touring a college-level physics class or visiting nuclear engineers from another country, your message would be very different than if you are boiling down (I can’t stop the puns) nuclear energy for a short news broadcast or billboard.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help craft a message your audience will understand:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What is their background?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their educational background?
  • What motivates them?
  • Do they know as much or more than me on this subject?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • Why are they here in my space?
  • What do they need that I can give them?
  • What do I want them to know?
  • What do I want them to do?

Remember, it is tempting to use big words and complex subjects, but you will impress your audience more if they understand what you are telling them. Sometimes all they need to know is that you are boiling water.

For more on using clear words, see Lessons from a Two-Year-Old: Use Clear Words.

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