Approximate reading time: 4 minutes 50 seconds
A Polish friend of mine complained once about a training session she participated in. It was, she claimed, a total waste of her time and money. I know her as being extremely patient and gentle so I was immediately interested in what about that particular training threw her so much off balance.
Here is her story. The trainer came from the USA and had extensive experience in real estate. He wasn’t cheap either which raised great expectations from the participants. However, to general astonishment, it turned out that the trainer came unprepared. He didn’t know anything about Polish realities such as the currency, the standard unit of area or the basic problems of the local real estate market. It resulted in him nonchalantly not answering specific questions regarding the real life problems brought up by the participants. He probably hoped that his many years of experience on the American market would be enough to meet their needs. Unfortunately, this lack of preparation completely undermined confidence in his competence. Although the trainer was indeed very knowledgeable and passionate about his field, the audience who found him disrespectful ignored everything he said. As a result, an event with some potential to be extremely valuable for all the involved parties turned out to be a complete fiasco.
The trainer committed the biggest sin of all, he didn’t know his audience.
If you want to be a successful communicator, you need to know your audience so do your homework!
I am sure you have already heard about knowing your audience as a key factor for successful communication. However, have you ever tried to understand what knowing your audience actually means? How much knowledge is enough to build a successful communication plan? What is the information you don’t want to miss?
There are no universal answers to these questions but there are four steps you can take to be confident that you know your audience just enough.
- Identify your audience
Identifying your audience is a process. You can’t start learning about your audience if you have not yet decided who they actually are. Identifying your audience should come straight from your motivation and purpose of your communication.
Sometimes it seems relatively easy at first to identify your audience. For example, you want to influence the policy in the area of your research so communicating to policy-makers seems an obvious choice. However, what I discovered in my almost 20-year-old practice in political institutions is that reaching policy-makers through their policy advisors and assistants could sometimes be far more effective than trying to reach them directly. Therefore, in some cases, identifying your audience may require some more thinking than you may initially assume.
At the beginning, it may sometimes look like you have two different target audiences you need to communicate to. In this case, you need to focus on your direct audience but keep in mind the result you hope for and keep it as relevant to the final recipient of information as possible.
- Check for patterns
Once you identified your audience, you should look for some common patterns such as:
- similar needs,
- similar education level,
- similar world view,
- similar leisure activities,
- similar age,
- the same language they speak,
- the same gender etc.
The importance of these aspects will differ depending on your research area and the audience you want to communicate to. For example, some studies suggested that caregivers’ gender may be playing a crucial role for accessing vaccination of children. In this context, if you want to communicate to parents the importance of vaccines, you may want to decide if you communicate to mothers, fathers or both. If your decision is to communicate to both it will imply starting by understanding different reasons behind mothers’ and fathers’ failure to vaccinate their children. According to the 2015 study on Gender Determinants of Vaccination Status in Children: Evidence from a Meta-Ethnographic Systematic Review, in some countries such as Turkey gender norms restrict female mobility in public so women often refrain from leaving their homes in order to maintain their reputation and status. Therefore, the problem would be not so much lack of knowledge among mothers but access to vaccination services, which, in turn, wouldn’t be problematic for fathers.
Remember that your audience will never be entirely homogeneous so at the beginning you may feel that there are no common characteristics to base your communication on. However, your role is to find as many common characteristics as possible. If you find it impossible, there is a chance that your audience, as you defined it, is too broad and you need to focus on a more specific group.
- Listen to your audience
As you could understand from step 2 it is not enough to have general knowledge about your audience. It is also important to understand why they may need to know more about your research and how they can use this information in practice.
The best way to get this information is asking questions. In order to ask questions you need to be where your audience already is and possibly create a relationship with them so they want to share their concerns.
However, it is not always possible to become a trusted member of a circle for many reasons of which lack of time may be the least problematic. In that case you should identify a place where you can find people you are aiming at (nowadays it’s most probably a place online) and listen to them for a while without necessarily asking questions. Try to identify their fears and aspirations so when you create your actual communication strategy you can address those issues directly.
- Create your avatar audience
Once you’ve identified your audience and as many common patterns as possible you should personify the group. Imagine your audience as a single person characterized by features that you have identified as leading in your audience. Or, in other words, create an avatar audience that will help you to tailor your message to that specific person.
You need to make sure you know the answers at least to the following questions:
- what do my audience worry about?
- what are my audience’s needs?
- how can my research address their worries and needs?
- who do they trust when it comes to acquiring knowledge/information?
- what is their favorite way of communication (both communication channels and language style)?
The more time and effort you decide to dedicate to analysing your audience the more effective you are in your communication. The amount of time you will eventually decide to dedicate to it should depend on the result you want to achieve and how well prepared you feel with the amount of information you already have.
Keep in mind that analysing your audience, as important as it is, should never displace your research. Make sure you keep the balance but never use your research as an excuse for not investing your time into getting to know your audience at all unless you want to end up like the American real estate trainer who failed at transferring his extensive knowledge to training participants. Instead of a group of enthusiastic supporters of your cause, you may end up with a group of unsatisfied people. And you can bet that unsatisfied people talk just like satisfied people will happily spread information about your research.