We communicate to share our ideas and co-create. It doesn’t matter if we write a public article or an email to our colleagues; our goal is to take our thoughts and pass them on to others. In most cases, this will be the first step toward some grander goal, but it is an essential step. As long as we need others to help us achieve our goals, we have to be able to exchange ideas with them.
Communication often fails when we forget a simple fact: if our audience and we were on the same page, we wouldn’t have needed to communicate in the first place. We forget that our audience and we are not aligned just yet — that we are not starting from the same position. When we forget that, things we might find trivial can become substantial barriers our audience needs to overcome; what we consider a no-brainer might turn out to be a chasm one can barely cross, and the motivation we take for granted might be completely different than that of the people we talk with.
We fail to communicate so often because we are biased. We think our audience thinks like us and has the exact knowledge and experiences. When we have something meaningful to share, that’s never the case.
To communicate effectively with our audience, clients, and colleagues, we must identify these potential gaps and design our content to bridge them. We must take our audience on the communication journey and not leave them behind.
Step 1: Know Your Audience
We can’t walk our audience through our arguments and logic if we don’t know who our audience is. Communication involves two or more people by definition, so we’d better understand who is “on the other side.”
The first thing we must know about the people we communicate with is what they are trying to achieve: What are their goals? Sometimes, our goals are already aligned before we start to communicate. In such cases, we start at a better position, even if we still face quite a few challenges explaining our line of thought. But if our goals are not aligned, we cannot ignore that. We must address that explicitly in the shared content and try to bridge this gap or find some common ground — a joint destination we can aim for.
Next, we must know what our audience knows. Different people have different knowledge and experiences. What we consider obvious can be uncharted territory for them (and vice versa).
The context in which our communication partners operate is no less critical. Even when we are all aligned on the goal and have a good level of common knowledge, the people we interact with might have constraints or conflicting goals we are unaware of. These concerns might clash with our idea, so we’d better be prepared to address that.
Knowing your audience is not trivial, especially if you don’t have real-time interaction with them. Not trivial, but possible. Research, sampling, and offline discussions are tools we can use to prepare better before we write even a single word.
Step 2: Take Your Audience’s Perspective Into Account
Knowing our audience is meaningless if we do nothing with that knowledge. The next step is all about applying this knowledge to the content we are about to share.
As you design and write the content, keep your audience in mind. Constantly check what you are writing against the insights you came up with in the previous step. When you find any gap — address it. When in doubt, it’s better to write or say something redundant than leave your audience behind.
Using simple words and statements will usually help you reach your audience. Don’t dumb down your content or overly simplify your ideas. Deep and meaningful ideas can still be phrased in simple words. It’s far from trivial, but when we use simple words to capture our thoughts, we create a more significant impact. More people will understand our ideas, and they will be more memorable. Their effect will last longer.
Another way to bridge the knowledge and context gaps is to start with the basics and gradually evolve the argument. We often think about ourselves when we write content and share ideas. As a result, we might skip many things we take for granted. When we start with the basics, we can bring more people on board and help them follow our lead.
When you are done, try reading what you wrote as if you were the audience. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. If you can, give someone you trust who might be closer to your audience an opportunity to review your content. Their feedback will be invaluable.
Step 3: Get Some Feedback
Be attentive to the feedback you receive even after you share your ideas. If you sense people didn’t get what you meant (or just gave up halfway through), you’ve probably left your audience behind.
Leverage this feedback to write your next idea better.