Why good communication starts with a simple equation

Pic by Jonas Jacobson

At the heart of all professional communication lies a very basic equation, whose solution goes a long way towards determining whether your efforts succeed or fail.

When you are telling a story for professional purposes, you are asking for something from your audience. Initially you want their attention, but what you often really want is the chance to change the way they think, feel, or behave.

However, if you want something from your audience, then you had better be giving back something in return. And if you really want to be successful, then you need to make sure they believe that what you are giving them is worth more than what they are giving back.

Whether you are delivering a presentation, being interviewed, sitting on a panel discussion, or even writing a blog post, the equation is still the same. If what you are giving is worth less than what you are getting back, then you soon won’t be getting back anything.

This equation is obvious in media interviews, where the person being interviewed generally wants the amplification and authority that comes with speaking to reputable media outlets. Journalists just want good stories (I always did), but we are not the group you are really trying to influence – which is unfortunate, as without an audience, stories can have no impact. Fail to give the audience something of value, and no one gets what they want.

It is also true in sales engagements, where it is obvious that you want something from your audience – i.e., their money. If someone can’t see the value in listening to you from the outset, then you’re going to find reaching your goal becomes harder and harder.

Exactly what an audience might want varies from situation to situation. In some instances it is knowledge of current events. In others it is insight and education. At other times they might simply seek entertainment. But in all instances, if the audience is not getting something of value, then they won’t be an audience for long.

This value equation applies in all forms of communication, such as on-stage presentations, blog posts, or even sales and marketing material. No one is going to pay it any attention unless the value of doing so is established very, very early.

Journalists act as proxies for our audiences, by putting ourselves into their shoes and considering the questions they might like to see asked and the things they might want to learn. The better we are at this, the better we become at connecting with and building that audience. One of the primary reasons I’ve declined interviews throughout my career is that I saw no value in them for my audience

But for any professional communicator, understanding the needs of the audience is critical. If you don’t know who your audience is, then how can you know what they want or what they need – and therefor how can you be sure to be delivering anything of value?

Understanding your audience is one of fundamental elements of good communication. There is never any excuse for not putting in the time to research your audience appropriately, and failure to do the appropriate research is one of the primary reasons why communication efforts fail to achieve their goals.

Most people are polite, but if they are only listening to you out of politeness, that can hardly be classed as a successful outcome.

Only by understanding your audience can you define what value they might be seeking, and align what you can offer to them. It’s surprising how often delivering greater value to your audience upfront will be rewarded in the long term.