If you’ve ever presented a design concept to a board of commissioners or a community group, you may understand the frustration that follows when your efforts to teach a lesson are met by blank stares. You’ve probably faced the temptation to just communicate more and harder to compensate for their inattention but this is not the answer. The key to getting a new concept to stick lies in engaging your audience. Communications Professor Hak-Soo Kim, of Sogang University explains the process of engagement in his paper titled Engagement: The Key to the Communicative Effectiveness of Science and Ideas. According to Professor Kim, engagement can be interpreted as a sequence of events. First, the audience is exposed to new information, next their attention is focused onto a specific problem, then they come to understand the information presented, and finally, they choose a response. If you understand the process, you can shape your message to maximize engagement and communicate more successfully.
Engagement begins with the act of exposing
During a typical college lecture, a professor speaks non-stop in front of his students and cascades information down into spongy minds–minds that are already primed to soak it all up. The students pay attention, but primarily because they’ve spent money on the class, they need to pass the final exam, or it’s required to complete their degree. When you are trying to engage a general audience though, simply showing someone facts is only the first step.
Focusing Attention on a Problem
Professor Kim points out that most people engage with the weather more than anything else and furthermore, weather is the most frequently reported subject in the mass media.
As a matter of fact, weather is an omnipresent problem for us. Because it is consequential to all aspects of our life, it comes to us as an ever-present problematic situation.
We engage with the weather as much as we do because it directly affects us and we constantly adjust our behavior to it. From this phenomenon, we can learn how to frame the problems in our messages in order to elicit engagement. Problems are most likely to engage an audience when they are easy to relate to and the audience perceives that there is something they can do about it. So, if you are writing about the increasing global population of slums, for instance, you may want to write about the effects of overcrowding on the global economy and suggest a list of charities to donate to.
Understanding the Problem
After we focus on a problem, we begin the work of understanding it. Professor Kim points out three main modes of cognition that come into play: orienting to available information, constructing new information about the problem, and/or reorienting in response to feedback. In the orienting mode of cognition, the audience seeks out further information about the problem in order to augment their understanding. The construction mode of cognition refers to the formation of new ideas about the topic; in this mode of cognition, the audience might brainstorm solutions to the problem. The third mode of cognition, reorientation, occurs when the audience reacts to the problem, receives feedback, and reacts again with the feedback in mind. The process of engagement may include any combination of these modes of cognition but at least one form of cognition is required to respond to the problem.
The Final Step in the Process of Engagement: The Response
After the audience has come to understand the situation, they may chose to act (or not to act) in response. If the ultimate reason for your communication is to get more people to use passive solar design, non-VOC emitting finishes, or even to read more about architecture, this is the step you want people to reach and making the previous steps easy will make you more successful.
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