Road Tested: Putting Your Audience Behind the Wheel
As communicators, we can learn a lot from car dealers. Today’s lesson: when you walk onto the lot, the salesman doesn’t talk about his commission or the bonus he stands to earn if he sells you the car you are considering. Instead, he points to what matters to you: the high safety rating, the low interest rate, the immediate cash back, or maybe the admiring looks you’re sure to get as you drive through town.
In short, he accepts his audience as it comes to him and focuses on charting a path to a sale. Car dealers learned and applied a bedrock communications lesson long ago: the audience is never wrong.
It’s single hardest truth in communications. But once I was able to learn and adopt this mindset, I was able to more easily focus on the real work of finding a way to connect and persuade audiences to move in my clients’ direction.
I am not saying your audience has the right set of facts, that they draw logical conclusions or that they will actually move in your direction. But by saying to ourselves that “the audience is never wrong,” we can emotionally remove ourselves from willing them to be different or trying to force what matters most to us onto them. Instead, we focus on controlling those factors we can change, including message, medium, tone, spokesperson and the rest.
There are a few signs that clients are on the wrong track, like when association leaders say that their members “just don’t get it,” or worse. Instead of staying stuck in frustration, our job as communicators is to encourage resetting the conversation, and letting the members tell their association what they want and need. If the solutions being offered don’t meet those needs, it’s time to move on and meet members where they are.
Working with clients, I stress four factors as we develop communication plans. These factors are always viewed and gauged strictly from the audience’s perspective, based on the assumption that we are competing with a host of other messages for their attention.
- Immediacy: Issues that affect audiences sooner will always win over ones that affect the long term, even when the consequences are more serious in the long run. Stress the now-ness of your efforts.
- Simplicity: Once you start speaking in complex language, audiences tune out. They may still smile and nod politely as you go through your slides, but they are thinking about their shopping lists or vacation plans behind those friendly faces.
- Threat/Benefit: Audiences want to maximize rewards and minimize pain. Clearly identify how your pitch will resolve a difficult issue for them or put value in their lives. Virtues alone don’t win the fight, unfortunately.
- Power: Audiences who grasp the immediacy, understand the issue clearly and know how it will help them are primed for action. Give them a clear, straightforward next step they can take immediately. It can be as simple as signing up for a newsletter or joining a webinar, but audiences crave power they can wield to respond to your pitch. A lack of power leads to frustration; audiences take matters into their own hands, with unpredictable results.
The key to using these factors is to be rigorously honest with ourselves on how well our audience receives our messages and approach. Understand the environment your audience is navigating, and assume you have serious competitors for their attention on all fronts and at all times. Road test your approach with colleagues and focus groups as you are able, and adjust as needed to improve your approach.
One more lesson from car dealers – you can’t expect to sell a car to every customer who comes along. You make the case, persuade the persuadable and leave the unpersuaded with as positive a feeling as possible. Maybe they will come back to buy one day – if they remember you and your message warmly.
It is rare that our issue is the first thing our audience thinks of when they wake up in the morning, so accepting our audience exactly as they are helps us get our efforts in gear and maximizes our odds of success.