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Working in the voluntary sector
Working in the voluntary sector

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4 Keeping your audience in mind

When preparing any communication it is useful to try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Your message is more likely to be received and understood if it takes into account your audience’s interests and concerns. For example, if you are approaching a trust for a grant, it will be important to know what the trust’s priorities are and to say how what you want to do can help to meet those priorities.

One useful technique for trying to understand different audiences is a paper ‘role play’. This involves thinking creatively about how different types of people get their information, what they like to read, see or hear, and what their interests are, and then to express this in terms of different characters (Kingham and Coe, 2005, p. 72). Box 1 illustrates this in practice.

Box 1 Imagining key audiences: a paper role play

A group promoting local organic food carried out a paper role play to understand three key audiences who could act as influencers on the Ministry for Consumer Affairs. Drawing on their research and understanding, they created three fictional characters with different personalities, lifestyles, information needs and media preferences. These characters were then used when planning communications aimed at promoting a change in government policy on local food.

Mr Khan is a senior official in the Department of Trade and Industry. His information comes from trade press, conferences, broadsheet newspapers, academic reports and websites. He prefers information with facts, statistics and models. Mr Khan is impressed by examples of good practice from local authorities in the area of local food. He can understand and absorb into his work detailed arguments from the group because he is a specialist.

Mrs Jones is a regular supermarket shopper. Her information comes from mid-market newspapers like the Daily Mail and the radio (both national and local to where she lives). She also enjoys reading gardening and food magazines. She particularly notices stories that have a human element. With a part-time job and young children at home, Mrs Jones does not have much time on her hands, so she appreciates simple, practical messages about local food that she can respond to easily (e.g. signing a petition).

Angela Whiting is a farmer and fresh fruit producer unable to get her produce into the supermarkets. She is an active member of a farming organisation, from which she gets much of her information about local food (through briefings and mailings). She watches news programmes on television, but does not have much time to go into complicated arguments. She tends to be most receptive to information that is clearly relevant to her professional interests and is presented in an accessible format (e.g. with visual aids, such as graphs). As Angela is involved in food production for her living, she can respond to relatively complex demands for support from the group.

(Source: adapted from Kingham and Coe, 2005)

Like the food group described in Box 1, much of the communication work that voluntary and other organisations undertake involves trying to persuade different audiences to do something: perhaps volunteer, sign a petition, write a letter to a Member of Parliament or make a donation. In these situations it is important to think through what you can realistically expect from different audiences, and to pitch your request accordingly. Because you cannot always accurately gauge what people may be able to do or give, it is often useful to suggest a range of realistic responses. This is why many charities often suggest a range of possible donations when asking for money.

It is also important to take into account your audience’s circumstances (for example, the pressures they are under or their cultural background) as they might affect the communication process. So, for example, the medical jargon a doctor uses to talk to fellow medics is likely to be inappropriate for communicating with patients.

Cultural differences can arise for a variety of reasons touching on class, education, professional training, religion, ethnic background, regional differences, and so on. Unless you are sensitive to these differences, your message may be seen as inappropriate or may be misunderstood.

Activity 6 Communicating with key audiences

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Think back to the two audiences you identified in Activity 5.

  1. Write two or three sentences about a fictional character from each of the two audiences. Make sure you cover the areas of job, information needs, information sources and likely levels of engagement, as in the role play examples in Box 1.
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  1. How do you think understanding your audience in this way might influence the way you communicate with each of these characters? What might you realistically expect from the characters in terms of a donation or another form of support?
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This approach is similar to market segmentation – trying to understand the needs of different elements of an organisation’s market. It has the advantage of helping you keep in mind that the different audiences (or segments) with which you are communicating are a collection of individuals with their own interests and needs. However, you do also need to be aware of the danger of stereotyping.

Often when voluntary organisations communicate they are trying to persuade people to do something. Next you will look in more detail at how you can make your message attractive and persuasive.