Career & Success

Quick Thinks: All Effective Communication Must Start With This

Hint: it’s not just about what you want to say.

December 04, 2020

As we look back on more than twenty interviews with Think Fast, Talk Smart guests, we’ve heard one piece of advice over and over again: know your audience. This wisdom echoes what research clearly shows: content that is relevant and meaningful to an audience is more likely to be heard, retained, and acted upon.

The word communicate comes from the Latin for “to make common,” yet many of us start our message from the wrong place. As lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams shares in this Quick Thinks episode, taking time to tailor our message to the needs of the listener ensures that our communication will be more engaging and successful.



Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: How would you feel if you received a love letter addressed to whom it may concern, confused, distracted, disconnected? Well, this is how your audience will likely feel if you craft communication that isn’t tailored to their needs.

I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to a quick thinks episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

As host of this podcast, I have had the privilege to interview many communication experts and while said in different ways, almost every one of my guests has highlighted that effective communication that which educates, motivates, defends and inspires starts by honing messages to our audiences needs. My guests’ advice echoes what research clearly shows: Content that is relevant and meaningful to an audience is much more likely to be attended to, retained and acted upon.

The word communication comes from the Latin for to make common, yet many of us forget this goal. Rather, when it comes to communicating, most of us start from the wrong place. We focus on “what do I want to say” rather than “what does my audience need to hear.” This small but powerful change in perspective fundamentally shifts how we approach our communication.

I am reminded of a great story I heard in the book Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. In fact, Chip teaches at the GSB and in this story they recount a story from the 1980s in Texas in the state of Texas. They had a tremendous littering problem. There was trash and rubbish all over the place. It didn’t look good and it wasn’t healthy. So the government invested in a public service campaign featuring Woodsey. The owl “give a hoot, don’t pollute” in this ad campaign was on billboards, radio, and television. Remember, it was the 1980s. There was no Internet. When I tell my current MBA students this story, they physically begin to shake at the disbelief that there was a time when there was no Internet. Unfortunately, this ad campaign was not very successful. Two years after Woodsey was on radio, television, billboards, littering actually got worse, this caused great concern. So the government went to a group of academics and they asked them to help.

The very first thing the academics did was try to figure out who was doing the littering. Now, this won’t surprise many of you. It was men, not just any men, but men between the ages of 18 and 34. And these researchers dug deeper. They wanted to know more about these men. So they looked at their attitudes, their habits. And one of the things that they learned is that these men were very proud of being from Texas. They took great pride and, in fact, knowing who was doing the littering and some of their attitudes, they were able to create an ad campaign that you can still see today: Don’t mess with Texas.

This was a wildly successful ad campaign. In fact, it reduced littering a lot, and it was based simply on understanding your audience. It’s a play on words don’t mess, meaning don’t make a mess, but also don’t mess.

So understanding your audience’s needs can help you craft communication that really motivates and changes behavior. But in order to know what your audience needs, you have to ask several questions. For example, what are they expecting to hear? What history or background does my audience have with my topic? What is their knowledge level regarding what I intend to discuss? What attitudes might they have towards my topic? Are they favorable, hesitant or agnostic? What areas of concern or resistance might they hold? And finally, what inspires or motivates them? With answers to these questions, we can better understand where to start, the depth we need to cover and how to handle skepticism and hesitation.

For example, if your audience has a history of familiarity with your topic, you can often hit the ground running. Otherwise, starting with some storytelling or positioning might be important for you and for them. Or you may need to focus on scaffolding and layering concepts, terms and background information for a less knowledgeable audience. Finally. If you’re confronting a reluctant or resistant audience, you might be well served to start with questions rather than declarations. Using words such as faster, cheaper and more efficient can often soften opposing viewpoints.

Given the many benefits of knowing our audience, how do we learn about them? We need to engage in reconnaissance, reflection and research. Explores social media, that is, check out LinkedIn profiles, corporate bios, personal websites, send out survey questions to audience members prior to preparing your content, confer with people who have communicated with this audience before, invite audience members to a practice run or a sneak peek and solicit input and feedback. Almost all of my podcast guests have declared the value of knowing our audience before creating our content, their message is simple and clear. By taking the time to learn about our audience and their needs, we can better craft and hone our messages for them and therefore be more useful, engaging and successful.

Before I wrap up this Quick Thinks episode, I am thrilled to announce that Think Fast, Talk Smart will be back in the new year with more episodes. We will likely have some changes to our format and release frequency, but we will remain focused on bringing you valuable insights that you can apply to your communication. Thank you for tuning in to think fast, talk Smart, the podcast, a production of the Stanford Graduate School of Business to learn more, go to Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.

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