One of our central tenets in teaching persuasive communication is to know your audience. Having an informed sense of your audience’s needs, concerns, and context (did the company just suffer a drop in the stock price, did the VP in the room just get a big promotion, is a merger shaking everything up?) allows you to craft a strong message that speaks to your audience’s particular circumstances.
This directive, though, often stymies our participants. “I don’t have a lot of time to get ready for a meeting,” someone might object. “How am I supposed to add in all this research to my process?”
My response? I get it. We are all short on time. But I also know how quickly and easily, especially in this age of information, you can gather a few key bits of knowledge to help make some educated guesses about your audience. All it takes is a scan of someone’s LinkedIn page, a quick look at the company website and a cursory Google search for any relevant business news.
A word of caution: When you do this kind of research, it is very important to know that the information you gather is superficial knowledge. Does it allow you to have a sense of their priorities and experiences? Yes. Can it guide the way you ask questions or start a conversation? Absolutely. But keep in mind:
- Don’t make hard judgments.
- Be aware of the individual and be prepared to be surprised.
- Approach this with a curious, open mind.
- Above all else, use this as a way to listen and connect.
Sometimes I like to run an exercise in my workshops. I pull out a deck of cards, but instead of suits and numbers, these cards have professional profiles on them: title, education, generation, tenure at the company (all information accessible on a LinkedIn page). And I ask the participants, “What could you infer from this information?”
When you know someone’s education, their experience in the company and their functional area, you can guess, broadly, what they are listening for and what they are trained to do.
For instance, if you have two senior vice presidents in the room — the same age, gender and tenure at the company, but one is in HR and one is in finance — you can reasonably guess that the VP of HR is going to be listening for something different than the VP of Finance.
What if you notice someone has only been at the company for a year, but they have a doctorate? It might make you careful not to treat her as a newbie because while she hasn’t been working long outside academia, she’s certainly accumulated knowledge and expertise in her field.
What guesses might you make about roles?
- Accountant: He listens for solid, informative numbers.
- Operations: She wants to know the product delivery plan.
- Lawyer: She’s focusing on who is accountable and areas of liability.
- Sales: He’s interested in the metrics — what’s the potential performance?
It’s important to be prepared for a range of different attitudes. If an employee has an associate degree, for instance, she might have really had to hustle to make her way through the corporate structure. That might make her proud — or she could feel resentful of the hurdles she’s faced.
Similarly, someone with 30 years of experience might be a knowledgeable leader, ready to guide us to the appropriate resources. Or he might be worn out, jaded and on the glide path to retirement. The key is to use your knowledge to orient you but to be prepared for the route to change.
What about generational differences? These can be significant. Baby boomers, for instance, tend to stay longer at a company, to respect authority and to be comfortable with meetings as a primary method of communication. Millennials, on the other hand, tend to be more impatient, less willing to sit through meetings and open to creative, risky solutions. How might those generalizations shape the way you approach persuasive communication?
Beyond these profiles, you can look a little further for a bit more information. Check out the company org chart. Does your decision maker report to another colleague in the room? How does he get paid? Is she in line for a promotion?
Think about things like military background: A veteran of the armed services is much more likely to want a detailed plan that explores all the contingencies, to be highly organized and structured and to want to move within the chain of command.
The purpose of the professional profile cards is not to trade in stereotypes but to demonstrate how quickly and easily we can gather a minimum of information that can help guide us in creating a message that resonates with our audience. With a better sense of priorities, concerns and goals, we can devise a listening plan that will help us gather even more information, offer ideas for asking questions and set out solid starting points in creating a connection between speaker and audience.
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