Wednesday, May 11, 2016

From the vault: You are not your audience

(Editor's note: This post, updated from the original 2014 post, is still and always relevant. Just a reminder...) When I'm working with clients to help them figure out what they want to say and how to say it--be it in a speech, a tweet, a report--the most common message-crafting mistakes they make involve the audience. Or should I say they don't involve the audience?

That's because mistake number one typically involves forgetting the audience entirely. As one of my scientist-trainees said, "I had no idea that I should take into account what the audience knows or wants to hear instead of what I want to say." I'd rather you took the approach of novelist Ursula K. LeGuin, who told an audience of graduating seniors, "I have no right to speak to you. What I have is the responsibility you have given me to speak to you."

Mistake number two, for speakers and communicators who do think about the audience: Confusing the audience with yourself. "I am, therefore the audience thinks like me" might sum up this feeling. Remember that when you're wielding your opinions and views, it's common to assume that they are widely shared--but that's an assumption that can trip you up later.

The most recent example comes courtesy of a Pew study that shows that most Americans under 30 don't know what "Roe v. Wade" was about--even though both sides of the abortion debate have long made it their shorthand for the 40-year-old abortion law. So every time that term is used, it loses people in that age group who are part of the intended audience. Even among Americans over 30, just over 60 percent knew what the term meant, not a ringing endorsement. I've seen the same thing happen with scientists who assume the public hates them or politicians who assume the opposite (neither of which is typically supported by data).

When communicators are prepping an expert or spokesperson, or getting in fights over particular favorite words and phrases, you often hear this expressed as "But I understood what that meant" or "But I think that sounds effective." Communicators make this mistake themselves, usually when they groan about using repetition of a message or tactics that help your messages stick with audiences. "I'm so tired of hearing this again," they'll say.

But you're not the audience, friends. And when we're working on a message, I don't want only you. I want your audience, in order for real communication to take place.

One reason I think spokesfolk make this mistake is that it's easier to go with what you want to say than to parse out who is in your audience. That's particularly true in the age of "the people formerly known as the audience," in which they, too, are communicators. For some experts, the idea that everyone may not accept or understand their views is anathema. To me, those are signs that you should be thinking more precisely about your targets and how they relate to your subject matter.

Put another way, the audience is your secret sauce when crafting a message. I know, you think the emphasis there is on "secret," and it's true that you won't be able to know everything about the audience you aim to reach. But the more you consider your audience, the better and more thoughtful your communications will be. Can you come up with a few profiles of the people you're trying to reach? Can you describe them in demographic terms? Can you think like a calendar to use the age of your audience as a guide to what they know, as in the Roe example above? Do you know anything about their preferences in terms of receiving and using information? Do you know their likely level of knowledge about your topic? Communicators have a critical role to play here by filling in the blanks for spokespeople and experts on their audiences. Starting to develop a message without your audience means they won't be with you when you need them most.

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