Why Half Your Audience Won’t Listen to You

Ted talkWho is your target audience?

The first question you need to ask before starting a communications project can come down to analyzing one key motivator for your target audience.


Before you can unite an idea with an emotion to inspire action, you have to understand why your target audience might not do or think what you think they should. But figuring out why otherwise intelligent and caring people might not think like you is often easier said than done.

The TED talk in the video below provides an excellent starting point for understanding and appealing to people’s moral intuitions. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory, and experimental psychology, the speaker, psychologist and professor Jonathan Haidt, explains how six fundamental ideas commonly undergird moral systems around the world: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.

But he explains that liberals worldwide value fairness, rights, and freedom from oppression, while conservatives value preserving tradition and legitimate fidelity to rules that have stood the test of time. Because these are often opposing moral visions, Haidt’s talk is a reminder that messages framed without audience research and an understanding of communications theory could inadvertently repel half your audience.

I predict Dr. Haidt’s theory will become a communications theory classic like professor Geert Hofstede’s national cultural dimensions theory, anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s high- and low-context culture theorySRI International’s VALS (“Values, Attitudes And Lifestyles”) framework, and professor Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovations theory among others. These theories show how complex human behavior and decision-making is, and reading them reminds you the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

That leads you back to a common theme of this blog: the need for audience research (perhaps combined with a knowledge management approach) when your objective is behavior change.

Storytelling Success = Emotion + Drama + Visuals

Uniting an emotion with an ideaPeople love stories. They warm hearts and bring content to life in a way dry data and left-brained arguments cannot. The Web 2.0 stories they love most unite a positive emotion with dramatic narrative and strong visuals, encouraging people to share and act:

Of course, facts are facts, and you have to have data to back up your stories. But how you tell your stories—according to your objectives and your audiences’ interests—is perfectly malleable per the above formula for success.

ICT Success = People First and Technologies Last

Does my recent rave review about xPotomac’s innovations mean I think all conferences should feature mind maps and tweets instead of PowerPoints?

I hope it goes without saying “of course not!” Why?

Due to POST, which I’ve written about before briefly. POST is a useful acronym coined by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, the authors of Groundswell. It stands for People, Objectives, Strategy, and Technologies.

The acronym is a reminder to always start information and communications technology (ICT) communications planning by considering the capabilities, interests, and needs of your audience—not the hot technological tool of the day. If you are targeting social media influencers who own handhelds and live in the United States, that does enable leveraging their connections to get your message out in real time. If your audience is rural cell phone users in India, however, consider using speech, graphics, and touch interaction apps that work on old fashioned “feature phones.” If you’re reaching out to business travelers, focus on the ratings and review websites they frequent.

Once you have defined what makes the most sense for your audience, then set your objectives based on what you are trying to do. Inform? Energize? Resolve customer complaints? Foster collaboration? Crowdsource? Connect?

Your objectives will then determine your strategy. Imagine you succeed. How will things be different afterwards? Imagine the endpoint to determine what audience behaviors you harnessed, influenced, or changed. As I explained in my recent xPotomac post and an earlier post on encouraging social media engagement, this typically means much more than merely raising awareness.

The last step is picking specific appropriate technologies, the opposite approach of attempting to replicate xPotomac’s innovations with a reluctant audience or client and different objectives. That’s because ignoring POST, falling victim to shiny object syndrome (otherwise known as fondling the hammer), and mindlessly copying tactics is often the recipe for activity without accomplishment—not innovation and ICT success.

xPotomac, the Next ‘Big Thing’ and Behavior Change

xPotomac and mind mapsYesterday I attended xPotomac, a conference on the most influential media technologies most likely to impact businesses and marketers in the immediate future. Both the conference’s content and its organization showcased disrupted shifts in recognizing and harnessing change.

Its organization you ask?

What I found interesting was the fact that none of the speakers used extemporaneous PowerPoints. Instead, they used handhelds with colorful mind maps to remind them where they were in their talk (kudos to Kathryn Garrett for first pointing this out via Twitter). The result was more eye contact and audience interaction than you typically get when speakers are stuck in a pre-personal computer = overhead transparencies paradigm.

The conference room did, however, have a big screen. It was filled with the top tweets and Twitter influencers using the #xPotomac14 hashtag. The result was crowdsourced speaker notes not only perfectly calibrated to audience interests in real time, but also short and sweet enough (due to Twitter’s 140-character limit) to be able to be read quickly without tuning out the speaker. If you have ever developed a PowerPoint, you know it’s hard and time consuming to get buy-in for appropriately concise and readable slides.

This brings me back to a frequent topic, the need to focus many public outreach efforts on mitigating or encouraging specific and pre-determined behaviors appropriate for your audience—not simply raising awareness.

Think about it.

Spreading the word about how great xPotomac’s crowdsourced speaker notes worked is unlikely to result in its replication at conferences outside of tech circles. Touting the benefits of mind maps would be similarly ineffective at invoking change.


xPotomac and mind mapsBecause sitting at a conference tweeting on your computer, tablet, or phone is not considered socially acceptable in most venues. Further, most people still are not on Twitter, so the crowdsourced speaker notes would be a flop in most places. Most importantly, the majority of people simply expect to see overhead slides and for audience members to keep their eyes on the speaker or overheads—not their computer, tablet, or phone.

The only way an organization could replicate xPotomac’s success is by encouraging Twitter adoption and demonstrating influencers (i.e., bosses and clients in a professional setting) are on board—for both behavior changes.

In other words, to position ourselves and our organizations to compete in the future, it’s not enough to have a few innovators see the potential of the next big thing. It’s a question of reimagining how and why we do things and then ensuring the requisite behaviors are in place, have social support, and are culturally acceptable enough to harness and benefit from the efficiencies of technological change.

That is my main take-away from xPotomac, at least from my strategic communications perspective.

Crowd Accelerated Innovation and the War of Ideas

David BaileyOne of my posts from 2010 was about a TED video on “Crowd Accelerated Innovation.” The video is about how the Internet is connecting people all around the world, enabling people who otherwise would never meet to share ideas and fuel and perfect innovation.

I recently connected with David Bailey of The Military Social Media Blog after writing my recent series of posts about the lack of sound communications strategy plaguing the U.S. military in the very places sound strategy is needed most to curb Islamist extremism. David, a former officer in the British Army, is a “digital whisperer” who has been involved in British military influence activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

In the video below, David is interviewing me for a vlog post about how knowledge management could help the military, particularly in the United States, overcome many of the obstacles it faces and adapt to a war of ideas in the Web 2.0 age. In another recent video, David interviewed his associate Nicole Matejic, the #SocialFirefighter™ out of Australia, on how newsjacking can do the same.

I’m honored to be asked to contribute to military learning and be a part of David’s effort to tap “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” to fuel understanding and learning and win the war of ideas.  As the 2010 TED video shows, amazing things are possible when people around the world connect to share and innovate. Fingers crossed David’s efforts make a difference! Thanks David!