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The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

Posted By Jess Myers, Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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The Boy Scouts of America, seemingly forever, have told their charges to “Be Prepared,” even making that simple mantra their official motto. Those words, or a version of them, are ones to live by when dealing with the media, and speaking to a wider audience. Be prepared, or more importantly, don’t be unprepared.

One important preparedness key to a successful encounter when you speak publicly, be it in an interview with a local reporter, or in a conference address before 100 attendees, is to know who you’re speaking to. When prepping for a conference it’s easier to know, generally, the makeup of the audience. Use that information – who they are, what concerns them, what makes them happy – to your advantage, catering your message to answer questions they may have before they ask, and anticipating questions they may have which have not been answered, yet.

When the phone rings and a reporter is on the other end of the line, it’s a different challenge, but no reason to panic. Again, know with whom you are speaking.

If you get a call from the lifestyle writer for your local community newspaper, they’re probably looking to write a nice, positive story, and it’s something in which you will want to participate. If you get a call from an investigative reporter at Dateline NBC and they have questions about policy, it’s probably something different and you should be cautious.

A simple way to get to know your audience is to buy some time. Take down the reporter’s name, phone and email, the name of the media outlet; ask what questions they want answered and ask about the deadline for the story. It’s OK to ask the reporter to email you a list of questions. Then tell the reporter you need to gather some information and you will get back to him or her. Give an approximate time you’ll call back (generally no more than 90 minutes later) – and make sure you do call back.

In the time you’ve given yourself, find out more about the reporter and, if necessary, the media outlet. The simplest way to do this is with an Internet search. For example, searching for “Joe Smith, Northern Minnesota Times” will often produce a list of the reporter’s past stories, a bio of the reporter and some additional information about the media outlet.

With that research completed, if you’re comfortable with proceeding with the interview, take some time to prepare talking points for yourself. These are key points you want to get across in your talk with the reporter – salient facts and important opinions that you want to offer. Think about what things you would want in the story if you were writing it, and get those points across in the interview.

Some other important points about knowing your audience when speaking publicly:

  1. Everything is on the record: When you’re talking to a reporter or in front of an audience, you’re never “just chatting.” Everything you say – from the minute you say hello, to the minute you say goodbye – can and will be used. In this era of instant social media, words can be world-wide on Twitter or Facebook in seconds, so choose them carefully. Saying, “this is off the record” means very little to most reporters. In fact, most will say “then don’t tell me” if it’s off the record.
  2. Don’t bluff: Reporters, and most audiences, can smell bluffing a mile away. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have that information. Let me get it for you or find someone who can answer that.” In fact, it’s much better to say that than to try to fake your way through an answer. If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification. Trying to bluff your way through an answer is going to leave the reporter unsatisfied, at best, and can be disastrous.
  3. If you’re asked about a problem, talk about a solution: The mark of a great politician for years has been the ability to take a question about a problem and provide an answer about an opportunity. For example, if a reporter calls and asks about a safety issue, talk about all of the strict measures in place to help prevent safety problems. If the audience asks about an issue with a website, an appropriate answer would be to cite all of the measures in place to find and fix website problems. They ask about a problem, you talk about a solution.
  4. Don’t argue or debate: The old adage on dealing with reporters has been, don’t get into a fight with folks who buy ink by the barrel. Always remember, they will have the last word. At worst, say “We clearly see things differently, but let me look into that further.” And again, look into it further, and call them back.

Tags:  audience  be prepared  ewald consulting  jess myers 

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