Think like your audience for better, more effective communication

One of the cardinal sins in professional communication is to focus on what you want to say, rather than what your audience needs to hear. A poet or a novelist may have the privilege of their audiences wanting to hear what they have to say, but if you’re trying to either (1) inform or (2) persuade your audience, as most professional communicators are, your starting point should be them. Audience analysis is one of the bedrocks of strong communicative practices, but it is often overlooked. 

Unfortunately, most audience analysis techniques require you to complete a worksheet with lots of questions, many of which may not apply to your situation or purpose, or that you may not have the information to answer.  In this post, we’re going to focus on three things to help develop an awareness of audience that can help shape your communication: understanding your audience’s knowledge, understanding your audience’s values, and understanding how they’ll experience the communication. 

Knowing what your audience knows 

What your audience already knows will determine where you need to start, but it’ll also help to determine what you’ll need to do to accomplish your goals, as well as what your goals will be. Here, it’s helpful to think about your audience’s educational background, their professional experience, and their current position to give you a sense of their background knowledge. Whether speaking to an engineering team member, a manager, a CEO or the public, what your audience already knows – or doesn’t –  will determine so many different things about your communicative strategy. It will determine where you need to start – how much background to provide – as well as help to determine what you’ll need to communicate to them to accomplish your goals.

For example, when trying to convince another party that you have a good handle on an engineering problem, you’ll take different approaches for different audiences. When trying to accomplish that goal with a member of your engineering team, you can dispense with the basics and move very quickly to technical details and justification that they’ll require to understand your solution. Communicating about the same problem to a manager may require stepping back to explain how the technical problem fits into the larger goals of the project, then moving on to the technical background required to understand the nature of your strategy for solving the problem.  Doing the same for the CEO might involve starting with how the technical problem might effect the company’s bottom line.  For a less informed public, you might not explain the technical details at all, focusing on their experience of the problem, and how your strategies will remedy the problems they’re experiencing. In this range of audiences, not only does the information change, the purpose of the communication may change as well. Finally, you may also be aware of gaps or misconceptions in the audience’s knowledge; knowing those allows you to address them directly to establish common, agreed upon ground before moving forward in developing your shared understanding.  

Knowing what your audience values 

Knowing what your audience values, however, is far more important to the goal of persuasion. The answer to this question should determine your approach as well as your goals – what it’s possible or likely to accomplish. Here, you may need to know more than just their educational and professional backgrounds; you may need to identify their political and religious affiliations, ethnicity/race and gender. The questions may help to identify what their deepest held values are, and allow you to direct your communication towards those values.  Furthermore, you’ll want to know what predispositions they have towards your topic – whether they’re likely to view your topic favourably, neutrally, or negatively, as well as why, in order to plan your communication strategy. Planning for resistance might involve raising their objections and rebutting them, whereas planning for a friendly audience might involve finding the strongest points of agreement and working those. 

In communicating about climate change, for example, to parties already resistant to the topic, for example, scientific, data driven messages about the impact of climate change frequently miss the mark. Instead, targeted message towards specific groups work much better. For the religious, for example, messages around our responsible stewardship of the Earth work better; for those concerned about the economic ramifications of dealing with climate change, messages about how green technologies are changing the way business is done might be more convincing. And for both resistant parties, the purpose of the communication changes – from fomenting a green revolution to establishing incremental changes in smaller groups of people. 

Knowing how your audience will experience the communication

Finally, always be considerate towards your readers/listeners. Think of yourself in the same position, and of the limited mental energy we have to expend daily. And with that thought, employ all of the communication techniques possible to make it easy to digest the information and argument provided. Practically, what this means is – aside from what we’ve already mentioned above – to pay attention to and make explicit the structure of the communication.  Organize the material in such a way as to lead the reader logically from one idea to the next, starting with the background they need to understand the rest, and moving incrementally towards the ideas that support your position or provide the information they need. Make explicit transitions between those ideas to help move the audience along, without them having to exert much mental energy. And use strategies such as enumeration, overviews, and summations to always keep your audience aware of where they are and where they’re going.