Strike the right tone for your audience
Part one in the three part series, Craft Your Story
Whether you’re informing your team, presenting to a client, or inspiring room, the key to engagement is understanding what motivates your audience.
I got Freaky-Friday-ed
When my son was five, we’d do battle. Getting him to do something he didn’t want to was difficult at best. By necessity, we started talking about the concept of compromise: “two people can both get what they want,” and, exchange, “sometimes you need to give something to get something you want.” Over time, our budding philosophical discussions evolved to the concept of empathy, or, “seeking to understand someone,” and ported to a game board, “figuring the desires of your opponent.”
Now he’s ten, and I often wonder what sort of monster I’ve made — I can’t win an argument or beat him in chess. I think he could sell ice cream to a polar bear. What’s most surprising to me about the whole situation isn’t that our four-foot Jedi-master seems to be able to get his way quite often, it’s that when he does it, the exchange tends to help everyone feel good about the process and outcome.
Understand and Engage
As a professional communicator, I’m constantly working to gauge how my message is (or isn’t) being received. After all, if you’re not connecting with your audience, you might as well be talking to yourself.
When I first started on my career path, I was a visual designer. My goal was to understand what my client wanted to say, then communicate information to their audience in the most clear and compelling way possible. As my career advanced, so did my skill and desire to grow as a communicator. Before I knew it, I was being asked by clients to help craft their communication approach, and increasingly, the message itself.
One key learning along my journey so far: communication isn’t only about choosing the right topics and appropriate scope of content, but also about tone.
Q: How do you strike the right tone?
A: Seek first to understand your audience.
This exercise is much easier when conversing with one person then when speaking to a larger number. The key difference is interaction — conversation is an exchange, wherein presentation is an output.
Meet them where they are
As full-time audience members, we’re constantly bombarded with new information and ideas. It can feel overwhelming trying to process it all. It can feel impossible to keep open to new ideas while maintaining a truth that guides you.
Starting a conversation with a group of people can feel like jumping onto an already-moving roller coaster. People on the ride are having a similar experience but they’ve all arrived to this situation via different paths. To be an effective communicator, you’ll need to place yourself in their seat to understand the types of things they’ll be open to hearing and exploring.
If you’re going to speak to a group, you’ll need to cut through the din and create a story that people can understand and relate to.
Assess your audience with the Empathy Diamond
I’m no grand orator. That said, on rare occasion, I’ve spoken from over a podium to hundreds. A little more frequently, I’ve spoken to classrooms. The number of board rooms I’ve spoken to counts in the hundreds. And, probably like you, I’ve spoken countless times over coffee to one person.
PULL QUOTE: Story is less about novelty than you might imagine. The truth is, story is about relation.
What I’ve found is that in day-to-day business, there’s seldom time for listening to stories, let alone time needed to craft one that’s compelling. But what if I told you that story is less about novelty than you might imagine? The truth is, story is about relationship. It’s about understanding your audience. It’s about drawing a relatable experience that connects to your ask.
If the scope or timing of a project doesn’t allow for full audience research or empathy workshopping, when considering my approach for an audience, I use this lightweight tool to assess four facets of my audience:
Relationship: Use any existing rapport to help inform the required level of specificity. Ask yourself:
- Have you spoken with them before?
- Is there a power dynamic to consider?
- What’s their state of trust with you?
- What kinds of challenges will you expect?
Familiarity: Dictates how much background will be needed. Ask yourself:
- How well do they know your topics?
- Will there be zero-knowledge people in the room?
- Will there be experts in the room?
Disposition: The audience mindset helps regulate the aperture of information. Ask yourself:
- Are they predisposed to prefer data or relationship — will they be more convinced by the facts, or by you?
- Can you foresee any specific questions people are seeking to answer?
- Is anyone here against their will?
Tone: Let this dictate the rigidity of your topics and polish of execution. Ask yourself:
- How formal is the situation? What did they sacrifice to make time with me?
- How much time will they have to listen?
- Where are they on the spectrum of serious to jovial?
The results of this assessment will provide you the seed from which to grow the tone of your communication. The relative size of your graph will become roughly proportional to the effort you’ll need to apply to choosing and navigating your topics.
Here are some tips to get started: