Home > Know Thy Audience

How do you speak to your four year old niece or nephew? Is it the same as how you would talk to your Grandmother? Probably not.

To communicate effectively, we have to be conscious not only of how our audience expects to be addressed, but also what is important to them. We need to understand their existing knowledge of a subject and what information they need to make a decision, respect our decision, or take an action.

One of the keys to being a persuasive communicator is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Don't think about what you want to say, think about what they need and want to hear.

In this day and age, if you know who you are communicating with there are many avenues to find out information that will help you shape your communication. We have social media, online biographies, company websites and many other fonts of information. I am always surprised when people tell me they haven't thought to do some basic research before writing or speaking to a business or individual.

Of course, sometimes we may not know who our audience is or it may be a large group of people with different interests and concerns. In this case, you can still think about your audience before you communicate. Are they mainly one demographic in terms of age or where they live, are they probably all parents, do they have similar occupations, or common values?

If we are still struggling, we can 'imagine' our audience. We can create a picture of them in our mind and write or speak directly to them. I read somewhere recently that when preparing to address his shareholders, Warren Buffett prepares his speech as though he will be talking to his sisters. According to the article I read, his sisters are smart, but not as savvy as he is when it comes to financial topics. This helps him develop a presentation that provides messages his audience can easily digest and enables him to impart valuable, useful knowledge. Now I don't know if this is true, but it is a great technique we can all embrace.

People often think that if their topic is complex there is no way they can effectively share it with a wide audience. This usually includes scientific, legal, academic or medical subjects. The problem isn't that these topics can't be communicated with all audiences, it is that the communicator often knows them so intimately, has spent so much time researching and learning, they have have forgotten the core essence of their work.

It is this core essence that will allow your audience to understand and more importantly respond to your messages. Does what you are doing boil down to saving lives, making space travel affordable, or inventing a better toaster? You get the idea. You need to take this basic achievement and use it to tell your audience why it is beneficial to them, the community or the world.

A great example of this is the Three Minute Thesis competition, which asks PhD students to explain their research in just three minutes, in language appropriate for a non-specialist audience. Often PhD work is highly technical, focuses on a small part of a large problem, and has been the focus of all the students' time and energy for many years. Forcing them to think about how to explain it succinctly and clearly for people who likely know nothing about their topic makes for effective and entertaining presentations.

So next time you put pen to paper, deliver a speech or are interviewed by the press, think about your audience and tailor your messages specifically for them.



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