Fairmount InSights

Did anyone else get the opportunity to watch Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night? Regardless of political affiliation, professional commentators and casual observers alike seem to agree that the man is a masterful orator, and his most recent speech was certainly no exception. The excitement in the convention hall was palpable even in my living room. Though the speech was almost an hour long, I was glued to my seat. 

It was that visceral reaction to the speech that surprised me the most, much more so than any of the content. Leaving political affiliations out of the matter, the man just said words – how can a different combination of words inspire me, when many other combinations of the same words in other speeches never can?

I think the answer lies not in the words themselves, but a conscious effort to know who was listening to those words, and tailoring those words to them. We all probably know the importance of altering your voice depending on your audience – very few of us find it wise to speak to our grandmother the same way that we would to our closest friends – but it’s important for us to make a conscious effort to always understand our listener, especially when it comes to a lot of our work in the nonprofit world.

When you’re writing an organization’s annual appeal, when you’re writing a grant proposal to The Kellogg Foundation or to the USDA, heck, when you’re writing an email to a colleague – if you don’t have a clear picture of who’s on the other end of that communication, your message or the change you want to effect is lost before it’s even sent. Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keys, here are some questions to ask yourself about your audience:

  1. Who are they? The most effective writers can clearly picture the person they’re speaking to, and write directly to them.
  2. What interests them? What do they want? Though a writer can’t (and shouldn’t) presume that their audience is homogeneous, identifying some of their common beliefs and experiences makes your writing more relevant.
  3. What do they need to know? This is the true substance of your message – more than anything else, what do you want your audience to take away from your writing?
  4. What do they already know? Audiences don’t particularly like being talked down to or told things they already know, but they also don’t appreciate a context-free, jargon-filled message, either.
  5. How can I easily explain to them what they need to know? Keeping all of the previous questions in mind about your audience will help you determine how you can best explain what you need the audience to know. Explaining a project to a private foundation takes a very different tactic than explaining a project to a person on the street.

The answers to these questions build to the ultimate goal of the writing – What do you want the audience to do with the information you provide? Whether the ultimate goal is to increase volunteers, increase small donations, or secure a large grant from a private foundation, an effective communicator makes writing about their audience, not themselves.