After years of frustrating results I’ve learned to recognize when I’m complaining about my audience. It’s an important signal. In those moments I remind myself that I need to tell the story for my audience, not in spite of my audience.

Kids can be challenging. I don’t know a group of humans that’s quicker to stage passionate protests against sleeping, eating, or going potty. A parent stumbling across invisible tripwires on the wrong day can find themselves sitting on a pile of ruins that used to be called their evening . You’ve been at the grocery store and seen the desperate eyes of someone that’s stepped on an adolescent landmine. Up against an opponent that has no shame they’re damned if they give in and they’re damned if they don’t.

We don’t get it.

My kids are wonderful but they are no exception. Their strong wills and active imaginations make them challenging stakeholders. They’ll forfeit meals because the spaghetti sauce is suspicious. One night my son and I were locked in a stalemate over potatoes. My wife was out so I was on my own that night and running out of options. I didn’t want to play the “I’m hungry” game just before bed so I augmented the veggies with mashed potatoes and war was brewing. The harder I pushed the deeper he dug in. Back and forth we went, my heart rate climbing and his tears germinating. We were both on the verge of losing control when inspiration struck and I changed tact. I asked him if he liked French fries. His red eyes and puffy cheeks perked up in a hopeful nod. I said, “Well you’re in luck, tonight we’re having mashed French fries.” His skeptical sideways squint locked me in place as he inspected his plate from a safe distance. Placing the world’s smallest taste on the end of his tongue and mechanically retracting it into his mouth he tested the bite. I’m not sure how there was enough to chew but his jaw worked the morsel long and deliberately. Diffusing a bomb couldn’t have been more suspenseful than those 10 seconds. Finally, with a shrug, he decided it wasn’t so bad, swallowed, and ate his dinner. We’d cut the right wire.

Influencing my son wasn’t about will power it was about understanding the difference between doing and experiencing. Sure I could have forced food down his throat but that doesn’t mean he would have tasted it. He was resisting something he actually liked, he just needed help seeing that. The customer that’s arguing against their own best interest is not so different. It’s almost never the case that they are digging in because they are dumb; they are digging in because you haven’t connected the solution to the things they care about. Ask yourself, is it really the case that your approach is perfect and they are just too myopic to get it? Remember it’s your job to sell them on the idea, it’s not their job to be sold. It wasn’t until my son saw those potatoes in terms he valued that was he willing to give them a try. Do you know what your customer values?

Sometimes those values can seem trivial but if you are not aware of them you’ll never break through. A friend of mine tells the story of when he was a young analyst preparing a weekly update. At the time comic sans was all the rage but he wanted the report to look professional so he chose a more conservative font. Immediately his customers replied with negative feedback on the quality of his work. He could not figure out what he had done wrong; the information was good and the messaging was clear. Looking at the audience and how they communicated with each other he decide to try an experiment. The next week he prepared his report following the same methodology, with similar content and language, but used comic sans. To his surprise his customers couldn’t have been more enthusiastic as they responded with gratitude for his insights. My friend learned a valuable lesson about winning the ear of his stakeholders: font mattered. He still doesn’t understand why font made such a big difference but he was savvy enough to embrace it and establish himself as a trusted resources with that group of leaders.

After years of frustrating results I’ve learned to recognize when I’m complaining about my audience. It’s an important signal. In those moments I remind myself that I need to tell the story for my audience, not in spite of my audience. Do I really know what they value? What makes them anxious? Do the terms I’m using mean the same thing to them as they do to me? Do I have the wrong font? Would they be more interested if they saw this content as fries, potatoes, or maybe tots?

Physicist, Artist, Poet.

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