One of the most challenging (and exciting!) aspects of communication is that our audience is never a blank canvas. Rather, getting to know them is more like trying to interpret a Jackson Pollock painting¹. Before we’ve even shared a single word, the person we’re looking to connect with already has a set of existing, entwined beliefs about the world, themselves, and us (or people like us) that will, in turn, affect how they interpret us and what we’ll share. That’s why the old adage, “Know Your Audience,” is easy to accept in theory, yet in practice, we’re often left staring at paint splats wondering what it all means. What exactly do we need to know to communicate effectively?
In Dr. John Besley and Dr. Anthony Dudo’s latest book, Strategic Science Communication, they list 11 specific things that help us understand our audience and how they interact with the information we share:
- Their Beliefs about
- Information: facts/processes
- The communicator’s benevolence, integrity, willingness to listen and change, shared identity/values, and competence (what John and Anthony refer to as trust beliefs)
- Benefits & risks: how they believe a behavior or issue will affect them
- Self-efficacy: their perceived ability to change a behavior or an issue
- Social norms: the behaviors they believe their group(s) would expect or accept from them
- Their Feelings: their emotional response to an issue or what we share (e.g. hope, despair)
- Their Frames: how they view an issue (e.g. gain vs loss, close vs distant).
In one of the book’s footnotes, John and Anthony point out beliefs, feelings, and frame have the fortunate acronym, BFFs, which also stands for ‘Best Friends Forever’. These are a communicator’s BFFs because, ultimately, they will determine whether our communication efforts have the impact we seek.
It is not always feasible or necessary to know all this information about our audience; however, the more familiar we are with our audience’s beliefs, feelings, and frames, the better prepared we will be to refine our communication approach to address their needs. But here’s the key: in order to learn this information about our audience, we have to listen with intention to understand.
A Listening Exercise
Prevalent in my mind while reading John and Anthony’s book was a research study done by Hattaway Communications on Americans’ attitudes toward Covid-19 actions, including testing, vaccines, and mask mandates. Their research upended the narrative that vaccination status could predict people’s attitudes about Covid-19. In particular, I kept coming back to one audience profile Hattaway called ‘self-defenders.’ These were people who were deeply concerned about Covid-19 and were willing to get tested, wear a mask, and take additional precautions — except get vaccinated. Why?
The Hattaway team conducted surveys and focus groups to understand the various attitudes across the nation, but we can also listen in other settings such as public comment, media interviews, or dialogue. Even if you can’t survey your audience or conduct focus groups, by paying attention to how they’re talking about your topic you can learn more about them and tailor your messages to be more effective. Below we’ll walk through 3 beliefs people in the ‘self defender’ profile shared during the study. Together, these beliefs begin to paint a picture of how they were making decisions about their wellbeing. For each belief, I’ll suggest an interpretation and offer ways a communicator could prepare and adapt their approach based on how the new information changes their understanding of their audience.
1. ‘Vaccines were created too quickly’
(Belief About Information/Process)
This belief suggests that one hesitation to get vaccinated came from doubts over the legitimacy of the research. People won’t accept information if they believe the process used to gather that information was rushed or flawed. It’s important to note that this doesn’t indicate doubts about Science with a capital “S.” This belief is specific to the research for the Covid-19 vaccines. Therefore, for people who voiced this concern, it could have been worthwhile to expand on how science works and why and when it should be trusted, including how researchers come to a consensus. However, we should remember that someone could understand this process and still reject the messaging. Beliefs about information are not the only factor people use to make decisions.
2. ‘There was too much political influence’
(Belief About the Communicator’s Benevolence and Integrity)
Intermixed with doubts about the research process were doubts about the motivation to get the vaccine out the door so quickly. People won’t accept information they believe comes from a source who has ulterior motives and does not care about their wellbeing. To mitigate this doubt, a communicator could share stories that illustrate their integrity and warmth, including why they care about their work or a moment when they went against the tide to defend others. However, trust is difficult to earn — much less repair — in a single interaction. It is a long-term, cumulative effort where behavior speaks louder than words. In addition to displaying trustworthy behavior, as communicators we can also look to build relationships with strategic partners who have a standing relationship with our audience and have earned their trust. For example, an opportunity Hattaway’s research uncovered is that even though self-defenders’ trust of policymakers and the research was shaky at best, their trust for medical professionals, public health experts, and national news outlets increased during this time period; in this case, a communicator could have worked with these trusted groups to potentially reach people in this audience profile.
3. ‘There may be serious side effects’ + Group Demographics
(Belief About Benefits & Risks + Communicator’s Shared Identity)
‘Self defenders’ believed the risks of Covid-19 and were motivated to take action to protect themselves. However, some also believed the vaccine would not only fail to protect them from the virus, it could pose new risks to their health. A real communication challenge in this scenario is that if someone has doubts about the research and/or the source of the research, then any messaging that relies on that information to address risk concerns would miss the mark. Updated research, social proof, and trust beliefs would need to be priority. We touched on benevolence and integrity above, but there is a third trust belief that may correlate with risk perceptions: shared identity.
Something that stood out to me (and perhaps reveals a personal sensibility) is that Black and Latinx people were the most common race/ethnicity demographics in the ‘self-defender’ profile. This demographic information is relevant to risk and benefit statements because women and nonwhite people tend to see more risks and fewer benefits. This is often attributed to the fact that systems often leave marginalized groups more vulnerable to threats and least likely to benefit from opportunities. While you can’t listen to someone’s demographics, it can provide context for what you’re hearing and how you respond. Diverse representation feels especially important in this scenario. It’s possible that hearing from people who share their identity and lived experience could make someone more receptive to messaging that addresses risk concerns. Even if a communicator does not share their audience’s lived experience, they can still show respect in how they listen and respond to their audience’s concerns.
The statements above are all examples of how beliefs could deter a behavior, but there may be other beliefs, feelings, or frames that could motivate behavior. Hattaway’s summary, for example, provides advice on how to motivate people by appealing to self-efficacy beliefs (their perceived ability to change a behavior or issue) and framing messages around their values and aspirations. In short, people use a range of factors to make decisions. We can make bigger strides with a communication approach that seeks to learn and change, not just explain.
When communicating about issues at a large scale, in-depth audience research on existing attitudes, lifestyles, and demographics from groups like Hattaway Communications, Pew Research Center, Heartwired for Change, or Frameworks Institute (to name a few) is an essential tool to ensure the information is gathered using the most appropriate methods with a sample that is representative of the whole group. While this level of research is not always available when communicating at a smaller scale, we all can — and should — look for opportunities to listen to and learn from our audience: reach out to have a conversation, listen to public comments related to your work, or — better yet — involve them in your research process and communication strategy. You can also exchange insights with others in your network who communicate with your audience, including journalists and science communication peers.
If you are unsure how to adapt your messages to your audience, we’re here to help. Contact us for 1:1 or group coaching, attend one of our workshops, or join us for free practice sessions through the COMPASS Network. We are listening!
¹My favorite interpretation of Pollock’s drip paintings describes them as a new language to express the delicate balance between chance and control, a reflection of the human mind.