I walk into a room of graduate students ready to teach a workshop on science communication. I facilitate these workshops all the time so I’m at ease and comfortable with the program and agenda. What I wasn’t prepared for was the hostility in the room. I had barely opened my mouth, so I figured it was not me that made this group of students so angry. I had to sort this out or the day would be over before it had even begun.
I stopped my introduction and began to ask questions. Turns out these graduate students thought they were in this workshop because they were deficient in science communication, and they were frustrated and insulted. When I said that I was told that they were high potential students and that they were in this program as an advanced course to help them further their careers, that turned the day around. Suddenly they were grateful instead of hateful.
When we talk about knowing our audience, we are talking about more than what is on the surface. These were graduate students in science. They were all about the same age. They all were studying at this university. They all were smart. I had even been told what disciplines were being studied by these students. So, one would think that I knew this audience. But if I had ignored what was happening in the room, all my prep work would have been in vain. No matter what I had planned I had to deal with what was happening in the moment. This meant setting my agenda aside and entering the unknown.
And that can be scary, but not as scary as losing the room.
So if this should ever happen to you:
Take a breath and take the temperature of the room.
If you sense something is off, ask questions and listen, listen, listen.
You may not be able to solve the issue but by listening you will get to really know your audience and then anything can happen.