Skip Navigation

‘Make It Work’ With Tailor-Made Messages

I still remember the moment I realized my mistake.

It was a sweltering July afternoon. I was sitting at my desk preparing to lead my second science communication workshop in two days. Time was short, so using the same slides for both events seemed like a good idea.

But then it hit me. My slides were full of chemistry-related examples of science communication. This was fine for the chemical engineering students attending the first workshop but was sure to fall flat at the second workshop for Native scholars majoring in ecology and social sciences. 

Here I was, about to overlook my audience while training them on effective communication practices – oh the irony, given that one of my slides for the workshop covered this key messaging strategy.

Luckily, my mistake dawned on me in time to remedy it. Rather than blundering on with a less engaging workshop, I chose to revamp my slides for the second workshop. I frantically searched online for examples that would be relevant to the students and, with the clock ticking, feverishly stitched these examples into my slides.

Creating this tailor-made PowerPoint in a time crunch kind of felt like a design challenge on Project Runway. I could almost hear the show’s star mentor Tim Gunn spurring me on to ‘make it work!’  

But was this extra effort worth it? Undeniably yes!

One addition to my slides proved particularly engaging: aScience Friday video of Diné hydrologist Karletta Chief. She studies the rivers that flow through the Navajo Nation and seeks to help the surrounding communities impacted by runoff from nearby mines. The video landed perfectly, with several students at the second workshop recognizing Dr. Chief. Research confirms my experience, showing how relatable examples resonate with audiences.

Hooked with this pertinent, relatable example, the students became curious to learn more about how Dr. Chief communicates her research.  We went on to discuss how Dr. Chief’s storytelling combined with straightforward visuals were tangible examples of effective messaging techniques. Clearly, Dr. Chief is a role model communicator not just for indigenous peoples but for all scientists.   

Seeing first hand what a difference a tailored message can make has transformed me. Never again will I try to pass off slides from one presentation to the next without considering the audience. 

Several research studies support this view. For example, Kirsten Grorud-Colvert and her colleagues developed a strategy for engaging diverse audiences in marine reserve science that led to effective discussions about marine management. Tailoring is also critical to health communications. It is especially important to consider the audience when discussing controversial topics, since people's response to scientific debates depend on cultural values, and these views can bias interpretations of new evidence.  

I hope others will learn from my experience, especially all those professors who cover the same material, year after year, using the same PowerPoint slides. Here are four ways to customize your messages and connect with your audience:

  1. Use language and real-life, relatable examples that resonate with a target audience.
  2. Tap into where people live as well as their hobbies, backgrounds, and beliefs. 
  3. Use pop culture references or culturally relevant music and videos.
  4. Seek out diverse communicators and learn from them.

Aspiring to create the perfect fit message can be challenging and time-consuming. But even a few small, last-minute edits can make a big difference. Just look for common ground – that’s where you will find the threads of connection that nurture understanding, curiosity, and a sense of belonging. 

Claudia Bode

Claudia Bode (last name rhymes with Cody) currently directs education, outreach, and diversity initiatives for Kansas NSF EPSCoR. Strong mentors helped Claudia chart a course from a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Washburn University to a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Kansas. In 2003, an NIH postdoctoral fellowship gave her the opportunity to teach at Haskell Indian Nations University. It was here where she found her zeal for encouraging students of all ages to pursue science.

Collaborate with The Link

Recent Tweets

Which was the happiest cast and crew Alan Alda ever worked with? Find out when you purchase your pass to the @alanalda Film Festival : five of Alda's favorite films and his memories from each film. May 20-25. Presented with @StallerCenter
May 18
It's not too late to register for The Essentials - the #aldacenter signature online science communication training program. Sign up now for the #scicomm workshop on Friday!
May 17
Find out who was left out of the credits during @alanalda's film "Sweet Liberty." The beloved actor, writer and director shares trivia, memories, and favorite moments during our upcoming Alan Alda Film Festival, May 20-25, presented with @StallerCenter
May 17
Public Health Professionals: Learn to connect with diverse audiences in crisis through this free online course - learn more and sign up:
May 16
Register today for The Essentials, our fundamental #scicomm program for scientists & researchers. Learn to build trust, connect with others, and share the significance of your work in this 3-hour online program
May 15
Load more Tweets