How To Communicate Better With Your Audience

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As American author and presidential speechwriter James Humes once put it: “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

Here are three main tips for more “artful” communications: know your audience, know what you want to say, and say it clearly and meaningfully.

Communicate Better

Know Your Audience

This is perhaps the most important of our three tips.

The better you understand your audience, the more successful you’ll be in achieving the goals of your communication.

It may be that you already know your audience—perhaps you’re communicating with your co-workers, for example.

But even if you do know your audience, and especially if you don’t—for example, if you’re communicating with new and unknown customers in an overseas country—be sure you consider the importance of the following as you craft your messages:

  • How much do they already know about your topic? Are they well-informed? Or are they less informed, so that you need to provide background material before going on to make your main points?
  • What do they think about your topic? Now that you’re aware of what they know, consider what they feel and think. Do they approve or disapprove? How much and why? Do they take it seriously, or do they think it’s frivolous? Again, how much and why? Do they care about it? Do they think it will influence them personally? On their careers? On their businesses? How do they think it will affect them? Why do they feel this way?
  • What are their goals? Are these goals aligned with yours? Or are they different? Are their goals and your opposed? Can you create a compromise or common ground? Will anything that you’re communicating help them in achieving their goals?

In his Confident Decision Making seminar presentation, the English motivational speaker Roger Dawson presents an interesting way of analysing an audience.

He breaks people down into four basic categories—each named after an animal—as follows:

  • Bull: The Bull is busy and has little time for chatter, jokes, and details. He wants the basic facts and the bottom line. If you’re writing for this type, make sure your communications are short and to the point.
  • Eagle: The Eagle is a “people person” who gets excited and wants to share in others’ excitement. She loves jokes, anecdotes, and small talk. This is the type for whom you’ll want to lead off with a joke and include little stories or case studies as illustrations.
  • Bee: The Bee wants consensus. He loathes disagreement, conflict, negativity, and discord. He seeks harmony, positivity, and happiness. Play down threats and negative consequences for this type; emphasize optimism, advantages, and win-win scenarios.
  • Bloodhound: The Bloodhound is the “nerd” of the group. She wants as much data as possible, as well as background on the issue, and a full overview. Don’t be afraid to give this type lots of details, perhaps even providing links to more information.

Of course, you’ll often be writing for a mixed audience, but if not, keep in mind that corporate leaders tend to be Bulls, salespeople are likely to be Eagles, support staff (nurses, for example) are often Bees, and engineers are apt to be Bloodhounds.

Know What You Want to Say

Whether it’s a speech or a written communication, don’t just proceed “off the top of your head.”

Take time to think about what you want to say or write.

The following informal research methods may help you sort out what it is you want to communicate. As you do this research, be sure you make notes that you can refer to later, as needed.

  • Review existing research: Go online to find out more about your topic. Google it—but be aware that some Google results may be hoaxes, jokes, unverified claims, or websites run by extremists, or by druggies in their mothers’ attics. Try Google Scholar instead, or contact a librarian for help. Some libraries offer live chats with librarians. For example, Cardiff University has an “Ask a Librarian Live” function accessed via a link at the bottom of its libraries’ homepage; the chat service is available Monday to Friday, 09:00-17:00. And it’s not uncommon for library personnel to be willing to help with queries from outside their jurisdiction.
  • Brainstorm: Open a Word doc or a Google doc or whatever suits you best (a pen and paper works, too!), and begin writing down points you want to cover in the communication. Look for relationships among these points. Weed out those that don’t quite fit. Consider what you already know about your topic, and write that down. Put asterisks next to those points that need further research if you’re going to cover them thoroughly or if you’re going to support them well enough so your audience will accept what you’re saying.
  • Find an expert: This is perhaps the most valuable research technique of all. Experts typically love to discuss their areas of expertise, and they’re often thrilled when someone from outside their field comes to them to learn more. Finding an expert will save you lots of work, because the expert—through years of study, research, experience, etc.—has already done the work for you. Ask the expert to recommend other resources, too, such as books, articles, and websites.

Say It Clearly and Meaningfully

Too many message get lost in confusing and convoluted writing.

A good way to begin is to use the time-honoured method of creating a thesis statement.

A thesis statement is a single sentence that sums up what you want to say. The thesis statement tells the audience or listener what the communication will be about.

For greater clarity, you may wish to use a thesis statement that organizes the material and predicts the organization of the message. As a very simple example, if your thesis statement is “My favorited animals are rats, bats, and cats,” then the audience expects you to discuss rats first, bats second, and cats third.

Limit the thesis statement to five main points, maximum, when possible. Do you see that “My favorited animals are rats, bats, cats, gnats, muskrats, and wombats” is too long and unwieldy, and thus, likely to confuse the audience?

Here’s another example of a thesis statement that predicts the organization of the message:

Suzie Starlight is a poor role model for teenage girls because she has been overheard using racist language, she has been caught driving drunk, and she has spent time in jail.

When you put this thesis statement at the beginning of the communication, the audience can easily follow along if the first part talks about Suzie’s racist language, the next part discusses her drunk driving, and the third part covers her jail time. And of course, we also know from the thesis statement that this communication is about Suzie Starlight.

To keep your communications meaningful, pretend the audience is asking you, “What’s in it for me?” about every point in the message. Focus on answering this question throughout the communication, and don’t be afraid to answer it repeatedly. Keep a “you” attitude, as opposed to a “me/my/mine” attitude.

At the same time, don’t belabour the obvious or bore the audience with things they already know. In addition, avoid material that is superfluous and off-topic or only tangentially related to your main message.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to sum up, at the end, like this: When you understand your audience, know what you want to say, and say it clearly and meaningfully, you’ll do a better job of communicating.

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