Know your audience is one of the basic tenets of communication. But Donald Trump’s fortunes may be on the turn – and history may conclude that his big miscalculation was misjudging his audience. His unconventional style won him the Republican nomination but is not playing so well with the wider electorate. I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece from the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant.
As Bryant points out, campaigning for the presidency is not the same as campaigning for the presidential nomination.
Know your audience: Trump is the hero of angry Americans
Many thousands of words have been written about how Trump’s free-wheeling, deliberately politically incorrect, communication style has made him a hero of angry Americans who feel disenfranchised by the Washington elite. The problem he faces is that having got those votes in the bag, to win, he now needs to appeal to Americans who are not quite so angry and who have a more nuanced approach to politics, and social and economic problems.
As we have talked about elsewhere, political speeches need to be an emotional journey that ends up with the audience feeling they have been understood and they can see a better future for them and their family. The problem in politics is that there is not one audience there are many. There is not one thing the electorate care about but many. That is why so many hours go into crafting messages and speeches. It is hugely complicated and a profession in itself.
Trump’s campaign has at least been entertaining because to a large extent he has ignored those conventions. Marie Claire is among many publications that has pulled together a list of the extreme, offensive and rather stupid things Trump has said. It is worth a read.
The whole political phenomenon of protest votes for very non-traditional politicians is fascinating. And something that we will return to again and again. But just last week the conservative journalist Janet Daley argued in the Telegraph that we are entering the ‘Age of Stupid’ because politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are saying stupid things and not just getting away with it but being applauded.
Know your audience: 5 common mistakes
But to return to the mundane: if in the end, Trump is misjudging the wider audience, he is making a mistake that many people make in presentations and in media interviews.
Professional communicators have always to ask: who is the audience, as well as what is the message.
In media training, we see five ways people misjudge their audience.
- The most obvious miscalculation is that people use jargon, treating the journalist and the audience as if they were professional colleagues and using technical or specific language or acronyms that simply don’t work in a more general group of people, This can be medics talking about ‘health outcomes’, bankers talking about ‘unauthorised borrowing’ or international aid people talking about ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘capacity building’.
- Another obvious miscalculation is that people forget they are speaking to an external audience and share information that is confidential. For example, they share business targets or margins, or they are much too honest about the underperformance of their own team or another part of their own business. It is really common for people to tell journalists all about some new initiative that has not yet been announced – giving the journalist a scoop and the poor PR person who has been working on the launch a real headache.
- Another mistake I often highlight is too much focus on making money. In the UK and Europe making money is not seen as virtuous (this is not true elsewhere in the world). It is typically not a good idea to talk externally about your money-making ambitions. Much better to talk about the improvement in the experience or lives of your customers. This is not true if you are talking to the investment media: investors want to understand the business model and where the profit is, but for a general audience it is better to speak about your business as if it were a well-run charity. If asked directly by a journalist about the commercial ambition, it is best to be coy. I suggest phrases such as ‘of course we are a commercial organisation but the important thing is… ‘ We then suggest shifting the focus to the public benefit.
- Often when talking to a general audience there is a need to state the obvious. As journalists, we are taught to always consider the ‘helicopter view’. Remind people of the big picture. If you have spent months designing a computer system you will be stuck in the weeds of functionality and bugs – but if you are speaking to an external audience, you will need to remember to articulate why it was needed in the first place.
- And finally it is not just the helicopter view: a general audience needs to be reminded of things a speaker can assume are obvious. I call this sign-posting. A really typical mistake is a scientist throwing up a complicated PowerPoint slide with several graphs and lots of data points and saying ‘so what is obvious here is…’. And of course it is not obvious at all. The professional communicator knows you need one chart, not four and you need to explain the basics: ‘this chart plots weight loss over a one-year period with time across the bottom and combined weight of the group on the Y axis’. With that sort of introduction to the slide, everyone has a chance to work out what is going on. But sign-posting can also be as simple as ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ or ‘why this matters is….’
So if you are planning a media interview take AIM: work out who your Audience is, what your Intention is and then work out your Message.
Our advice would also be to avoid outrageous sexist comments or any wildly racist generalisations.
Photo used under Creative Comms Licence
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