Horns and Halos or Fishes? How audience analysis turns your message into real communication

The real reason we speak before any group is to get our message across. We always have a purpose in mind – to get the audience to think, feel or do something we believe to be important. We craft our message carefully to have the full impact we intend.

If we miss-read our audience, or worse yet, we fail to tailor our message to meet them where they are, we may end up frustrated and disappointed, our communication will not be received, and opportunity will be missed.  

Every effective presentation requires audience analysis, the practice of identifying the audience and adapting to their interests, level of understanding, attitudes, and beliefs.

Charlie “Lach” McDonald, my good friend and master crisis planning expert, and I were recently discussing how effective audience analysis is the primary key to achieving your communications objectives. As one of the most memorable and meaningful examples of audience analysis I have ever heard of in my 30 years in communications, Lach shared a story about his daughter, Christy, who is with the Peace Corps.

Christy, an accomplished artist, had been using colorful visual drawings to communicate with members of one of the dozens of indigenous tribes still inhabiting the Alaskan wilderness – whose  language is unique to only a few hundred tribe members. In an effort to help the local people understand the basics of health and hygiene, she drew pictures of the health and hygiene processes featuring a little girl with a halo who practiced the methods well and a little girl with devilish horns who did not follow the procedures.

Her attempts at communication had no effect. The halos and horns idea was lost on the tribe’s children, not to mention the adults.

Thinking about their lives and livelihood (analyzing her audience, right?), she tried a different tack. This time Christy drew the little girl who followed the health and hygiene procedures holding a stringer of three fishes. The child who did not follow the health guidelines? She was drawn holding a stringer with only one fish.

Voila! The kids got it, understood the implication completely, and then shared the health tips and the notion of the reward with their parents in the community. Everyone benefitted. Christy’s methods of audience analysis and persuasive messaging have been adopted for use by the Peace Corps to visually reach and motivate peoples in remote regions of the earth whose languages are obscure.

Thanks to Christy, every time I prepare a presentation I now ask myself, “halos and horns, or fishes?”

As you prepare you next talk, presentation or media interview, take the time to review three things:

  1. Who is the primary audience?
  2. What is the purpose of your communication? What do you want them to think, feel or do after hearing your message?
  3. What is their perspective on the topic you will be speaking on, and how will you help them receive the message? “Halos and horns, or fishes?”

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