You learned the basics of audience analysis in a speech or communication course, and now it’s time to apply those principles in a business context. Whether you’re making a proposal, closing a sale, or soothing an angry customer, the ability to predict your audience’s reaction makes all the difference in getting the result you want.
Strategy involves making choices--choosing from several options to reach a goal of some kind. Communication choices include
- method (email or phone?),
- content (type and quantity of information?),
- style (formal or informal?), and
- context (who should get copies?).
Each choice involves a judgment about the best way to meet the goal. Being strategic means making the choice that you think will get the most effective result, and then observing how well the tactics worked. This is not easy! Even the very best graduating business majors still haven't developed hierarchical sensitivity, responsiveness to audience concerns, fluency with expected formats, and an appropriately businesslike tone (Rogers et al., 2004). Professionalism develops over an entire a career, and every communication outcome--good or bad--helps you make a better choice the next time.
It is possible to communicate effectively just by dumb luck. A person happens to choose the best type of communication for the situation, happens upon exactly the information the audience needs to hear, and winds up with a successful outcome. Effective communication can also come from carefully following somebody else's rules--doing precisely what the boss or the audience asks for.
In both of these situations, the communicator can be effective without having clue why or how. So, if the outcome is successful, what was the downside of being lucky? or mindlessly following the rules?
The problem is that every communication situation is unique. Every communicator is trying to accomplish a personal goal, and every audience wants and needs something slightly different. The words that produced a lucky result one time might fail miserably the next. The rules devised by one boss for one specific audience might be wildly inappropriate for the next company or the next client.
For consistent success over a professional career, the effective communicator is a strategic communicator. This means choices are conscious--although not necessarily perfect. A professional uses the outcome to make a better choice next time. A professional doesn't just do the first thing that pops into his or her head, act out of habit, or take the easiest possible route. Which is not to say that the first thing that comes to mind can't ever turn out to be the best thing, but dumb luck is not a good foundation for a successful career.
Every strategic choice involves a goal. That can be a single, clear goal or a collection of possible outcomes. There might be both short and long-term goals to deal with. There might be multiple goals relating to different members of the audience, different members of the work team, or different business functions. There might even be conflicting goals among various stakeholders in the situation. The question, "what is my goal?" is a simple one, but be prepared to deal with some very complicated answers.
What communication method is most likely to succeed?
For any message, there are usually a couple of possible ways to send it...maybe more. Sometimes people will simply pick the most convenient method of communicating or the easiest for themselves, without considering its strategic value. Email is fast and easy, for instance, but not very accurate when it comes to conveying emotions. Some readers might reject email as too informal, at least for some situations. The easiest method of communication for the sender could be completely ineffective at making a good impression. If that were a more important goal than simply conveying information, the communication could backfire badly.
Here are five things to consider when making the choice. Notice there can be tradeoffs. For example, the richest channels are also the most expensive. The best communication strategy usually involves using the tool that sends exactly the right amount of information...not one bit more...and is the easiest, most convenient method for all parties.
- Media richness. A "rich" communication method can deliver a great deal of implicit information, emotional or tacit content, as well as explicit information. Speaking face-to-face, for instance allows participants to use facial cues, posture, and tone of voice to understand a richer message than reading each other's "lean" word-only emails. When emotions or tacit understanding matter a lot, as when people are confused or angry, a richer method can be important. On the other hand, a leaner method can be more useful when the strategy calls for getting an audience to focus on just the facts of a situation.
- Receiver preference. If the goal of a communication is to have an audience respond, the best communication method is the one that is easiest for the listener. If you prefer email and your colleague prefers a phone call, you'll simply get a more favorable (and probably faster) response if you make the call. If you're the boss, you get to make the rules, but in all other cases, it's the sender's job to accommodate the receiver.
- Organizational history. For maximum effectiveness, use the communication method that people are used to. If the production crew expects to see a monthly flyer with upcoming cafeteria menus, the message will be slower and confusing when it starts coming out as email. Even though the transmission is quicker, human audiences take some time to adjust. Sometimes change is worthwhile, but never forget that habits are an important item to consider.
- Cost of communication. For most businesses, the cost of communication is so high that savings are always important. When the typical business letter costs a company close to $20.00 to write and mail, an email can be tempting just because it's "free" (although the majority of a letter's cost is in the time to write it, which might not be any less!). There are also times when the expensive, glossy report cover is sending an important piece of the message. Don't skimp when your professional image is on the line.
- Message consistency. When information is being communicated in a collaborative work situation, it is often important that everyone get exactly the same information. It might also be important that everyone get the information at the same time. The first situation generally requires written communication, copied and transmitted in an identical way to thousands of recipients in a memo, email, or discussion post. Timing, on the other hand, can require a meeting, whether face-to-face or virtual, to insure that everyone is "opening" the message at the same time. This can be a tradeoff; people at a meeting will typically remember different things and report that they heard very different messages. When accuracy is really on the line, many communicators choose to do both, providing listeners with a printed copy of a presentation, for instance, so that everyone's has a consistent memory of the event.
What content should the communication include?
Content includes the objective facts included in the words or figures of the message, but a strategic communicator must make choices about how much and what kind of information to include. Each audience is different in terms of interests, preparation, and receptiveness to the communication. Each situation is different in terms of the expected, normal, or necessary content. A marketing analyst who is sending information developed from customer focus groups would need to include or emphasize different content for the marketing director, the package design team, and the production workers making the product. Here are four factors to consider:
- Information needs. It is the communicator's job to put information into a form that others can understand and use. A good communicator must therefore know what the listeners or readers will be doing with the information, what information they already have, and the detail needed to get their jobs done. The goal is to give the audience exactly the information it needs, not too much and not too little.
- Technical difficulty. Consider translating or explaining technical or numerical information for a non-technical audience. Most people understand quantities better than frequencies, frequencies better than percentages (Koehler, 1998), words better than numbers, and pictures better than words. If your strategic purpose is to help people understand the meaning of the numbers, it's usually best to organize them into comparisons, composites, and graphical relationships.
- Situational requirements. The ways in which an idea can be explained, illustrated, or supported are as varied as the ways information can be perceived. The situation includes both the immediate and any anticipated audiences who will get the message later, second-hand, or in bits and pieces. When organizational members argue, more complete, objective information might help to reduce conflict. When worrying about sensitive messages leaking to the press, less complete information might be a safer route. Strategic communication requires thinking through all the possible uses, misuses, and interpretations of message content.
- Format conventions. Business documents and presentation formats typically include certain kinds of content. Professional preparation of the document thus requires that expected content. Whether you decide to send an email, prepare an elevator pitch, or set up a departmental website, you'll need to include the normal, expected content for the format.
What effect will this have in context?
No message ever happens in a vacuum, and the effectiveness of any communication depends on the situation, the relationships among participants, and even future events.
- What else has been said or done? Are people opposed to or in conflict over the issue? Has there been talk about the topic within the organization or industry? Who believes what?
- Who are all the potential audiences for this message? The same facts might be good news to some and disaster to others. You might need to send separate messages, or rework the style or content to meet multiple interests.
- What relationships are involved or implied? Something as simple as who is listed first in the header of a memo can send a message about status, expertise, or influence to everyone else who sees a copy. Take into a how everyone relates to each other, not just your own relationship with the receiver.
- How this might be understood at a distance or over time? No business communication ever dies. Assume the email will be forwarded or the letter will be kept in a file to be read in six months or a year. A future audience could be from another country, an industry competitor, or a law firm.
What communication style will work best?
Any business communication should be clear, clean, and concise, but in a strategic situation, things can get more complicated. Should the message seem like it came from a businesslike person? a friendly person? a visionary person? a disorganized person? a detail-oriented person? These are easily the most important strategic choices and often the most difficult. A clear, concise businesslike tone is never wrong. (For more on Businesslike Style and Tone, hover over Communication & Presentation Skills on the right.) However, here are some additional points to consider:
- Relationship goals. Most business purposes call for audience-centered communication, sometimes called a customer focus, that emphasizes the interests of the receiver. ("You will be delighted to learn that your replacement will arrive tomorrow.") Sometimes, you'll want to focus on building a common bond. ("Our partnership has made it possible for our replacement to land in your shop tomorrow.") The goal might be to continue an uneven relationship, either upward, ("Please accept our sincere apologies along with a replacement part, which will arrive tomorrow.") or downward. ("I have made an exception to our stated policy and authorized a replacement.")
- Level of formality. Formality or distance in the relationship can emphasize power relationships or discourage further communication. ("It has come to our attention that your request for a payment extension was entered on May 10.) Audiences will perceive too much informality as immaturity or unreliability. ("Hey, I saw your note about an extension."). Most often, a friendly but conservative tone is used. ("We received your request for an extension on May 10.")
- Personality. Your own personality matters, and so does the personality of every individual receiving your messages. Task-oriented people get bored or antsy when communication doesn't get right to the point. People-oriented people will feel uncomfortable without some time spent on greetings or pleasantries. Concrete thinkers want to focus on behaviors, objective data, and details of the situation. Visionary thinkers want to focus on underlying causes, implications, and plans for action. A strategic communicator will match audience preferences for maximum effectiveness.
- Audience state of mind. No matter how technically oriented the audience, numbers take more effort and energy to understand than words or pictures. Is your audience already tired from a long day at the office? Provide pauses, pictures, graphics, refreshments, or jokes -- visual, physical, or psychological breaks -- to help readers or listeners maintain their concentration on the information you need them to understand.
- Professional background. Use common terms rather than industry jargon or technical terms, especially with people from other departments or companies or with new employees. Explain industry terms or concepts when you first use them, with clear, simple, and straightforward definitions. When defining the terms, try to compare or contrast the ideas with something familiar to the audience, and use examples whenever possible.
- Language background. Effective communicators in a global economy recognize that workers, customers, and international partners might not be fluent in elegant, academic, or regional forms of English. Many international firms recognize the differences among U.S. English, British English, South African English, or Australian English and ask that everyone adhere to the conventions of Business English, sometimes referred to as BELF (Business English as a Lingua Franca).
- Time constraints. A business person is a busy person with little time to wade through inefficient communication. The professional treats the busy audience with respect and takes the time to make content clear and information easy to find and use. Business documents that must be widely read should be at least as readable as a newspaper or business magazine, and presentations should be short and to the point.
The final step of strategic communication--and potentially the most important step of all--is to take a moment to notice whether the communication worked as expected and intended. Since many of the choices require some guesswork, noticing how well it worked is a crucial part of making a more accurate guess the next time.
The evaluation loop can be very formal, especially when the communication is expensive. A marketing campaign, for instance, will include follow up surveys or click rates to measure its effectiveness. Evaluation could be as simple as paying attention to the non-verbal responses when you mention something to a co-worker.
For young professionals, evaluation might be the hardest part simply because the organization is still unfamiliar. All the subtle cues are there, but not yet recognizable. If you're very new, you probably should have someone review your message BEFORE you send it, so you can do some revising, if necessary.
Think carefully about the person with whom you are communicating. What do you already know about him or her? What job or industry does this person work in? Where is he or she from? What other professionals do both of you know? The more you can learn about where a person fits into the organization, the better you can predict his or her probable knowledge about on your topic, and perhaps the attitudes or beliefs of someone in that job or role.
Individuals will have personal opinions on many topics, but a person who holds a professional position will also have responsibilities to play a certain part. Sales and marketing audiences are responsible for achieving targets, developing new customers or markets, and communicating customer preferences back to the rest of the organization. Meanwhile, operations and production engineers focus on costs, efficiencies, and streamlined task. Accounting staff concern themselves with accuracy of financial records. A personal's professional responsibilities play a large role in their information needs.
Decision Making Role
In general, the higher a person's organizational rank, the more involved he or she will be in decision making. Not everyone engages equally, however, and the strategic communicator pays careful attention to the roles people actually play. Within any group, a few individuals will gather information. Others will try to resolve conflict and placate disgruntled stakeholders. Some will be impatiently trying to reach decisions quickly, while others stay neutral.
Be sensitive to the relationships audiences and audience members have with each other. Don't ever assume that people don't know each other. They do, and they talk to each other.
Prior to meeting someone from another country, spend a little time researching his or her culture. Naturally, you'll want to avoid doing or saying something rude or insulting. You don't need to become an expert; the more important goal is just to show that you mean well and want to learn about others' ways of doing things.
There are many sources of information on business cultures around the world as well as comparisons of U.S. and other cultures, but the best source of information is the person you have just met. Don't be afraid to ask questions!
There are a few key behaviors that are commonly treated differently from culture to culture.
- Eye contact. Not all cultures perceive eye contact as showing respect and attentiveness to the speaker.
- Physical contact. Depending on the culture, physical contact may be more or less acceptable.
- Hand use. In many cultures, people do not use the "unclean" left hand for eating or hand shaking.
- Table manners. Cultures around the world have a variety of acceptable eating and drinking habits; few are similar to the customs seen in the United States.
- Personal space. Boundaries of personal space vary from culture to culture; some expect more distance, others significantly less.
- Headwear. The wearing of hats, shawls, and headscarves may be expected or considered rude.
- Gender expectations. Gender norms and expectations vary drastically from one culture to the next. Differences show in the attire worn by women, but less visible differences from American expectations and norms can create misunderstandings.