Friday, May 9, 2014

Before you write one word

What are they thinking?
If your task is to write an article or give a speech, start by asking questions about your audience. It's the only way.

Who are they? What do they think about me? About my topic? What interests them?

Even: what language do they speak? I have spoken before groups of people from many countries and languages all in one room together. Although they all spoke English, I couldn't rely on their understanding of Americanisms. Or even their agility with English -- were they translating into their own language, and how taxing is that?

We like to think about our topic. It's what we know and what interests us. But we don't write or speak in a vacuum. We have to meet our readers or listeners where they are, and then lead them to where we want them. If they've never heard of 3D printing, and that's our topic, we've got some work to do. If they're not a techie audience, more work.

Here are three questions to ask about your audience. They are from Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor of management at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Her primary areas of scholarly interest have included leadership communication, persuasion, and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly called her first book, Persuasion in Practice, ”a landmark contribution to the field.”

What I've just used is an appeal to authority to impress you. Reardon is nothing if not authoritative.

The three questions she proposes ask what appeals to our audience. They are a shortcut for developing positions that are likely to resonate with those we wish to influence.
Appropriateness appeals, based on social norms, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting is right or wrong in a particular group, organization or culture (e.g., “That’s not how things are done here” or “Everyone does this. You should too”).

Consistency appeals, derived from desire for balance or consistency across behaviors, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting fits with prior ones or one’s self-perception (e.g., “You’ve never done that before” or “This is so much like you”).

Effectiveness appeals, useful because human action is often goal-driven, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting is likely to work given the goals at hand (e.g., “That will never get you what you want” or “You’ll certainly have my attention”).
If we understand our audience in these three ways, we are way ahead of the game.
Skill in assessing what matters most among the three ACE Method persuasion categories, at a particular point in time for a person or persons, is critical in making good use of it. Sometimes this requires observing others over time or, when that’s not possible, asking questions that assess priorities. 
Here is one example of this in practice:
Marketers often use appropriateness, consistency and effectiveness considerations in developing advertisements. Auto ads focus on what others would think of us were we to purchase a particular model, consistency with self-image or desired self-image, and/or effectiveness of purchase, perhaps in terms of handling, gas mileage, or cost.
Reardon calls this The ACE Method. There are other questions, of course, but this is a good start. Use it and you'll ace your next presentation.

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