Are you talking to your audience…or yourself?
Every organization has its own language reflecting its internal culture. Executives are comfortable with the language used within. Lobbyists speak with infinite nuance about the most arcane details of important legislation. Software engineers can write complex programs in multiple programming languages but often lose others when stringing English nouns and verbs together. Each group of experts is masterful in communicating to others within their group. And usually lost when trying to talk outside it.
This creates a failure to communicate. The internal gobbledygook we speak to ourselves obscures our message – even when what we are saying is truly profound. Consider this quote found in a recent news release about a new book on food sustainability:
"Although progress has been made, the prospect of sustainably feeding nine billion people by mid-century can seem incredibly daunting. This book helps meet this critical challenge by breaking solutions down into vital principles and practices, and by providing a combination of practical tools and techniques as well as inspiring examples showing that, with the right approach, we can succeed."
In other words: We can feed nine billion people without hurting the planet!
That’s incredible, but you might have to read that quote twice to grasp the significance of what the speaker is saying. The other information in the paragraph is important and provides details about what the reader will find in the book. But the point of the book itself is buried. The unique value – feeding everyone AND being environmentally responsible – is separated by too many words and becomes obscure.
Here are a few questions to ask if you are talking to yourself or to your audience:
1. Can you imagine your target audience using the same language that you are to convey a point they want to make?
2. Could someone in your target audience relate your message to his or her neighbor using your words?
3. Can you make your main points in one sentence in 20 words or less (or 140 characters)?
4. Is your prose sprinkled with acronyms needlessly?
5. Is the information important/useful to the recipient?
6. Which takes up a larger percentage of your paragraphs: your main points, or qualifications and caveats?
One important point: This does not mean we have to “dumb it down.” But if you want people to listen to you then you have to get their focus quickly in a loud and crowded world. This means talking to your audience in their language. Not yours. Stating something simply in plain talk that your audience will relate to is not dumb – it’s communication. After all, the goal isn’t to prove how smart you are to your peer group. Your goal in communicating externally is inform, persuade and engage your audience. Speak their language and you will succeed.
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We live in a 140-character culture. People’s attention spans are famously short. “Doesn’t anyone answer the second question in an email?” a friend of mine recently moaned on Facebook. Yeah, well “who’s got time for that?”
Twitter and Facebook feed our appetites with bite sized morsels of information we can easily digest – while giving us, through links, the opportunity to get more if we want it. Modern communication is all about the art of the appetizer. Just make sure to give your audience the types of appetizer that makes them want to move on to the main course.
When beginning to create content I ask three questions:
1. How can I make a connection to my audience with my opening content?
2. How can I arouse their curiosity?
3. What do I want them to do?
By being able to answer these three questions I can develop content that is useful, meaningful and leads to results.
Connect with Your Audience
Remember your audience – what is the right message that will make an immediate connection that will make them want to know more? The key is to connect with their interests, values, emotions and desires up front. You have to start with something they already care about. It’s no accident that the most powerful word on Twitter is “you.” The 3rd person singular pronoun is a personal bridge between you and your audience.
Figuring out how to connect with your audience depends on that golden rule of communication: The right message to the right audience. You need to know who your audience is, what motivates them, what values and passions you share in common and what your audience can get out of your product or service. If you can’t answer the question “what’s in it for me?” from your audience’s point-of-view, you aren’t ready to communicate.
Create Curiosity then Feed It
The two most important words online may be “Learn more.”
Give them enough information to make them want to know more or to act. Raise questions in your reader’s mind and then give them a way to answer it, further engaging readers and drawing them in.
Once, while reviewing a draft phone script I had created, a client called me. “After hearing that introduction in your script, I’d be asking…” and the client then said the question I wanted the audience to ask.
Yes, I said, we want the audience asking that question, and the script prompts it. Creating curiosity gives the call recipient a reason to ask a question and naturally change the phone call from a monologue from the caller to a dialogue. If the call recipient asks a question, he or she has suddenly become invested in the call, opening their minds to learn more.
This is where your audience research and segmentation becomes valuable – you have to create the questions that the audience wants answered and that will matter to them.
There is an art to this, especially when creating web-based copy. The information you provide has to create the right amount of curiosity while not fragmenting your information into so many pieces that your reader gets lost or loses interest. Analytics will help you determine if you have the right balance, and you can keep tweaking your work until you find it.
Act: Give Your Audience Something to Do
Your audience should be invited (and if you’ve done your job, actually feel compelled) to do something. Maybe it’s simply signing up for your mailing list or to buy your product. Further action could be to contact you or another key decision maker, or to simply follow you on social media. While some of your audience may only be seeking information, you still must provide an avenue for action. Unless you have “college” or “university” as part of your name, you are communicating for a purpose that usually involves getting someone to do something. Remember the fundraising adage: People give money because they were asked. So ask your audience to take action.
At each stage or level or information offer a way for your audience to act. Some may be skimmers and just need the top-level degree of information; others may be scrutinizers who need to dig deep before committing to action. Plan for both types of readers or target audience members.
Asking these three questions and using the answers will help you create content that gets the attention of your audience and results you want.
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Scott Barker has more than 27 years of experience in public affairs communication. He has worked with Fortune 100 companies, senior level government officials, political leaders and candidates to deliver winning communications campaigns.