How to understand your audience

Understanding your audience is the key to tailoring all of your communication more effectively. Your message may seem clear and obvious to you, but what you put in doesn’t always get processed the way you expect it to. Your perceptions are true for you but may be very different for someone else, even someone who is close. For example, they may have completely different memories of a past incident that you shared. This reality is true for them even though it’s not for you.

What do we know about audiences?

Communication is not only about conveying information - it is also about developing relationships and building trust with your audience. Audience members:

  • would rather hear from people who are in the same group as themselves or who understand their perceptions, concerns and needs
  • tend to conform to the values and behaviours of the groups to which they belong
  • are often mistrustful of people from other groups, particularly those they perceive as posing a threat to their stability or livelihood
  • will seek out information from credible sources but are more likely to go with known and immediate or local sources when available

Developing more effective relationships and trust with your audience takes time and resources, but some key tips can help improve the effectiveness of your communication. All the good work that has gone into a piece of writing can be wasted by one word in the first paragraph that the audience does not understand or that puts them off. To avoid this, you can:

  • find out what they already understand and what they are inspired by
  • employ a competent person who deals with the community you want to reach to explain your messages
  • go out and talk to the people you are communicating with as often as you can so that you really get a feel for their interests and concerns

Spend time trying to understand your audience

Spend time finding out the key group/individuals that you need to engage right from the beginning, and at particular points along the way.

  • Don’t assume you have the correct knowledge about others - empathy is gained through genuine understanding, it is not an inherited trait.
  • Don’t just rely on stakeholder lists from the agencies - these are just the beginning.

Research what is already known about past perceptions, concerns and needs of other people. Look at surveys, reports, and newspaper clippings. Explore group networks, ask who else should be involved, and continue to do this all through the project. Identify the communication methods that are best suited to the groups you are working with and use them in preference to other methods of communication that may be easier for you to deal with. Actively listen to people’s concerns and needs. This means they do far more of the talking than you do. A good listener asks short sharp questions and clarifies that they have understood.

Ask for information

Be clear about the group or organisation that you are representing and be open and honest about your motivations in wanting information from your audience. Don’t get defensive - keep an open mind.

When asking for input or information from partners, structure your meetings so that like-minded people can work together. Partners are more likely to participate if they feel they can be heard. Don’t mix groups with various agendas unless you have a very real reason for doing so - and then do this in a very structured way with clear objectives, process and outcomes. Have them tell their story in active first person to get their direct perspective rather than including it as quotes in a narrative.

Pre-test messages

It is useful to test how clear your messages are before finalising a communication strategy or tactic. One way to do this is to pre-test the message with a sample of the audience. For example, before finalising a fact sheet, send a draft to a few people requesting their feedback, or present a draft strategy to a focus group and ask them about the messages. The following questions are useful for pre-testing a document (or presentation, video clip etc).

  1. What is the main idea this document is trying to get across to you?
  2. What does this document ask you to do?
  3. What action, if any, is the document recommending that people take?
  4. In your opinion, is there anything in the document that is confusing?
  5. Which of these phrases best describes the document? [Easy to understand/Hard to understand]
  6. In your opinion, is there anything in particular worth remembering about the document?
  7. What, if anything, do you particularly like about the document?
  8. Is there anything in the document that you particularly dislike or that bothers you? If yes, what?
  9. In your opinion, is there anything in the document that is hard to believe? If yes, what?
  10. In your opinion, what type of person is this document talking to? [Someone like me/Someone different to me]

Give feedback

At key points, especially in the final stages of a project, give feedback to those involved. Don’t just give written feedback - it’s the cheapest and easiest, but not necessarily the most effective. When people have actively participated in a project, they are more likely to come to a reporting/information session than to read a report.

Watch the timeframes

The timeframes of an agency/consultant are usually much tighter than those of the community. Recognise this in regard to generating participation, and manage it so that projects can be completed cost effectively and efficiently.

It’s all about them!

Don’t give up - it can take a concerted effort to truly understand another’s point of view…if that’s ever really possible. Remember, their point of view is all about them - not you!

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