Know Your Audience — Good Luck with That

I’ve long appreciated the fact that knowing your audience is an important prerequisite for effective communication. Over time, however, I’ve learned that this can rarely be achieved with specificity. The reason is simple: audiences are rarely homogeneous. If your audience is composed of two or more people, it is to some extent diverse. Consequently, it is only possible to finely tailor communication for an audience of one, and even then it’s challenging.

In most scenarios, we should do our best to communicate in ways that work well for people in general rather than for particular individuals. At best, we can assess the interests, abilities, proclivities, and experiences of our audience to determine a range of communication approaches that are suitable and to perhaps discard some approaches that don’t fit. For example, if you were the warm-up act at a Trump political rally, you could safely assume that discourse suitable for a convention of physicists should be avoided. You could also assume that emotionally charged statements would carry more weight for most of your audience than a rational presentation of facts. (To be fair, this is true of most audiences.) You could not, however, narrow your approach to suit people who exhibit a particular intelligence as defined by Howard Gardner’s seven intelligences (visual-spatial, bodily kinesthetic, musical, etc.), although you could certainly cover the same content in multiple ways to broaden its effectiveness. As diversity in audiences increases, our communication approach must increasingly be informed by general rather than specific principles of communication. In the business of communication, knowing what works best for most people is more often useful than knowing what works best for particular people.

In the interest of communicating in the ways that suit people’s interests, abilities, proclivities, and experiences, we often shape our audiences to narrow their diversity. Schools do this by grouping students into grade levels and by offering multiple courses in a particular subject to suit the interests and abilities of particular groups. With unlimited time and resources, we could finely select our audiences to match a tailored communication approach, but this isn’t practical.

One of the best ways to accommodate the diverse needs of an audience is to practice empathy. If we can see them, we can pay attention to them. We can read their reactions. In my data visualization workshops, I’ve always limited the number of participants to 70, in part to make sure that I could see everyone well enough to read their reactions and adapt my teaching accordingly. Obviously, there are limits to what I can discern in facial expressions and physical gestures, but such cues can be quite informative. It is also for this reason that I’ve never taught my courses remotely, but only in face-to-face settings. Web-based courses, though sometimes necessary given the circumstances, are an inferior substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Another way that we can accommodate the diverse needs of an audience is to address the same content in multiple ways. Though redundant to some degree, this redundancy is useful and it doesn’t annoy the audience. It takes more time to cover the same content in multiple ways, so it comes with a cost, but it usually pays off.

“Know your audience” is useful advice, but it can only be applied to communications in limited ways. In the business of communications, it is more useful overall to understand how people process information in general and to base most of our communications on that knowledge.

Take care,

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