NotAboutYouIn a lifetime of working in, studying and observing human communication, I’ve learned enough to fill about 100 books. If I had to distill it all into one actionable idea, it would be, “Make it about the audience.”

This advice is as useful when you’re talking to one person as it is when you’re presenting to a crowd. It also works when you’re creating marketing material, running a meeting, writing an annual report or sending a note to your babysitter.

It’s a paradox. As business people, we’re communicating about our products or services. Or we might be looking for support for our idea in a meeting or giving instructions to employees. Our business. Our ideas. Our stuff. Doesn’t the communication have to be about us and what we want?

The answer is, “Not really.” The chance of someone understanding you – and doing what you’d like them to – is greater when you design the communication around them and their needs.

Who is your audience? What interests them? What do they need to hear? What do they think they know? What do you want them to do? Why should they care? Thinking about the answers to these questions as you create and deliver your message increases the chances you will reach the people you’re talking to and that they’ll understand your message.

People are built to view things through a filter of ‘What’s in it for me?’ (WIFM). So, when you make your message about them they listen.

By the time you’re ready to share your idea, service, product or instructions with someone else, you’ve had a chance to think it through. You know the details and see the advantages. Your audience doesn’t have that advantage. For them, your message may be brand new. Since the brain equates change with danger, that idea may be uncomfortable, or worse.

So how do you increase their comfort and get them to listen? Invoke the WIFM strategy. Make your message all about them and their needs.

Let’s say you offer bookkeeping services to small businesses. Take off your bookkeeper hat and put on your small business owner lenses. How might you see bookkeeping then? “It’s about numbers and I hate numbers.” “I can’t afford to pay someone to do my books.” “Yikes, what if Revenue Canada audits me? Do I know what to do?” “Anyone with a calculator can do it.” “I’ll use QuickBooks instead.” “Arrrgh! I hate QuickBooks. It’s not for real people!”

What we see in these imagined comments is a mix of fact and feeling. You’ll want to address both fact and feeling in your message or conversation. Factual info, like pricing and tax audits, balances fear and uncertainty (and despair, if someone’s in over their head with QuickBooks).

To get an even clearer picture of what your audience needs, you can ask them. Start with happy clients. Ask them something like, “What’s most useful about what I do for you?” It may be a benefit you won’t think of. You’re doing something that’s easy for you so you don’t think it’s special. But they can’t do it for themselves, so they know its value. “Just knowing my books are in order gives me peace of mind. That’s worth millions.” “I used to spend a whole day sorting out my HST. Now I play with my kids and you worry about the tax.” You can use the value they see when you’re crafting messages for other people.

Seeing your idea, product or service from the perspective of the person you want to accept it takes imagination and practice. It’s worth the effort. Connecting with your audience is the start of a productive conversation.

This post first appeared in the newsletter of Guelph Women In Networking (GWIN)