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FAQ: How can I prepare to communicate with multiple audiences simultaneously?

By Sarah Sunu

Mar 14, 2024


Minute Read


The COMPASS team has led a lot of workshops over the years—600 and counting! And as you might expect, during those workshops we get plenty of questions, including some that come up over and over. One of those regularly repeating questions: how to handle needing to communicate with multiple audiences, at the same time.

Like a lot of questions about communication, there is no one right answer to this. Context is always important! But here are three different approaches to consider as you prepare.

1. Find Your Umbrella

Often, situations where you need to communicate simultaneously with multiple audiences are things like town hall meetings, press conferences, or public testimony in policy settings. While there might be lots of differences between the people or groups present, there is also something that is bringing them together in that space. It could be geography (everyone lives in a certain area), affiliation (everyone in a state legislature is an elected official), or concern (everyone is worried about the same thing, even if it’s for different reasons). Finding that unifying ‘umbrella’ element and using it to frame your messages can help you make your messages relevant across the groups present.

While it might initially feel challenging to identify commonalities across groups, this can be an effective and lower-risk way to reach multiple audiences at the same time, with the added benefit of reminding everyone present of what they have in common with each other. If one of your communication goals is to build relationships and bring people together around a topic, this approach can support that effort in addition to keeping your messages relevant for everyone.

Here’s an example of an umbrella-style approach:

“We’re all here because this place is our home, and right now we’re faced with some tough choices about how we can keep calling this place home when we are threatened by drought, wildfires, and sea level rise. We are all neighbors, and I’m here to help our community understand the science behind these changes and our options for how we can adapt to them.”

2. Lay Out A Buffet

Another approach is to share messages targeted at different audiences that are present. This is a little trickier, because it’s easy to go overboard and lose people’s attention, but it can also be effective if you’re careful. You can make sure your messages are still relevant by sharing a key message for each group you want to reach.

This method works well for written communications, where you can use formatting techniques like summaries, headings, and sections to help people navigate to what is most relevant for them. In face-to-face settings, this method is a little riskier than Finding Your Umbrella, because the longer you share messages they don’t find relevant, the more likely you are to lose someone’s attention.

Also, you have to be careful to make sure that your messages don’t contradict each other, because that will undermine trust and credibility. This is something you should be watching out for generally—even if you aren’t communicating with multiple audiences at the same time, you don’t want to be saying contradictory things to different groups in your meetings with each of them. Look across your Message Boxes for each group to check for and remove contradictions! This will help you clarify your thinking as well, so that you don’t unintentionally contradict yourself either.

Here’s an example of a buffet-style approach: 

“Drought, wildfires, and sea level rise are threatening communities up and down the coast. Homeowners are worried about insurance rates and property loss. Farmers are worried about their businesses. Parents are worried about their children’s health. As we think about the future of our communities, we need to consider all of these factors and work to develop plans that draw on the best available information we have about our options for adaptation and mitigation.”

3. Pick One

Sometimes you need to communicate in a situation where there are multiple groups present, but there is a primary group or person you need to reach most. This is where taking the time in advance to identify and clarify your goals for communicating will help you to figure out which audience(s) to focus on.  Usually this comes up for a setting like a meeting, where there’s a decision to be made and one person or group is in charge of that decision. If that’s the case, you might choose to frame all your messages for that group or person, rather than trying to make your messages relevant for everyone (using the ‘umbrella’ or the ‘buffet’). This situation is especially challenging when politics and power are involved. Do what you can to engineer contexts that will help people listen to each other, but when there’s limited time and resources you may need to start by addressing the primary audience first.

Here’s an example of a Pick One approach: 

“As the agency in charge of responding to natural hazard preparation and response, you play a crucial role in supporting communities in the face of these changes. My research on climate adaptation and community resilience can help provide you with further insight into options and opportunities over the next five years and support you in achieving your objectives and mission.”

Regardless of which approach you choose, it’s usually a good idea to try to also have separate meetings with each of your audiences if possible. You are much more likely to have a productive two-way conversation, where you can ask and answer questions candidly, in a smaller setting where no one’s attention is being split between what is being said and monitoring/forecasting how they think others will react.

Ultimately, you might also find yourself using a Mix & Match approach, and that’s great too. If you have the time—say you’ve been invited to do a 15-minute presentation—it can be very effective to combine elements of the Umbrella and the Buffet. Sharing a unifying framework that includes everyone, and then expanding on different points of key relevance for different groups, gives you plenty of material to work with.

Just remember to always consider what your audience needs to know in order to make decisions for themselves (rather than what you think you need to share for them to understand your work). And that you’ll want to do a Message Box for each of your audiences. Just because you’re talking to them at the same time doesn’t mean they don’t each deserve their own Message Box!

As you are doing your Message Boxes for each of your audiences, it may also become easier to see which of the above approaches might work best for you—or you may find another approach to try. If you do, let us know!

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