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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Know Thy Audience

Updated: May 30, 2023

empty auditorium

Have you ever been in an audience and got the feeling the speaker was in the wrong room? You felt like they had no clue who was sitting in the chairs or what they needed or wanted to hear. I hope you haven’t been that speaker. Knowing your audience is fundamental to communicating effectively.

Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide devotes an entire section of the book to this important topic. Tip Series #21 shares 5 tips for knowing your audience, focusing on the importance of a needs assessment and ongoing audience engagement. Download a copy of this or any of the other tip sheets.

5 tips for knowing your audience.

Following these five tips will make all the difference in how effectively you can reach an audience and the impact your message can make:

#1 Identify your audience

“Everyone” is not an audience. To be effective, a message must be targeted and tailored to specific recipients. Until the audience is identified, defined, and described, the message cannot be created.

The first step in knowing your audience is identifying who they are. Who will you reach with your message? Why do you want to reach them? That requires the next step…

#2 Determine needs

Effective messages meet needs and solve problems. How do you know what an audience needs? With a needs assessment! Analyze all relevant sources of information regarding their situation and the issues to address.

Use what you learn to prioritize your objectives and approach. A needs assessment determines both your starting point and desired endpoint.

#3 Engage to understand

The most important source of information about your audience is your audience! A needs assessment should include one or more ways to engage with the audience and seek to understand what they most need and want.

Proven approaches include surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observations. As you involve the audience you not only learn you build trust.

#4 Learn as much as possible

It is not feasible to assess everything about an audience, but the more you learn the better you can tailor your message. Determine what you most need to know.

Assess knowledge, attitudes, values, beliefs, behaviors, motivators and barriers, readiness to change, psychographics, learning style and channel preferences, goals and desires, and more. Go beyond demographics.

#5 Never stop engaging

The greater the engagement of your audience throughout message design and delivery, the greater your potential for impact.

You will have a more effective message tailored to what your audience needs and will achieve the results desired because the audience had a part in creating it. They will trust you, provide honest input and feedback, and achieve positive outcomes.

Think you know your audience? Think again.

Which of these tips do you find challenging to do? It can be tempting to think you know an audience and skip learning about them as you design your communication.

I have never worked with an audience where the needs assessment didn’t reveal something I didn’t already know and ended up making a big difference in what and how I presented to them.

Chapter 11 of Communicating Nutrition covers all you need to know to conduct a needs assessment. In that chapter, we include this story about what some students in my class learned from doing a needs assessment.

“The students in the nutrition communications course at Purdue conduct needs assessments in preparation for creating presentations to groups. One semester, a set of partners who had been former gymnasts chose to present to a group of young gymnasts in the local area.

Through secondary data collection, as well as their own experience, they determined that eating disorders and body image were their top choices for what to cover with the group. Before conducting their onsite surveys and interviews, I insisted that they open their topic choices to the group to allow them to indicate whether they were interested in these topics or in something else.

Through their needs assessment, the students found out that not only were the gymnasts not interested in those topics, they were adamantly against hearing another presentation about them. It turned out that everyone who spoke to the group talked about those topics and they were tired of it. Instead, they wanted to learn how to make fun, healthy snacks.

Consider what would have happened had the students gone in and done a talk about eating disorders or body image.… How would they have been received?

Instead, the partners designed a fun, engaging, and informative presentation that met the group’s interests and needs and was very well received.”

When you design communication – how well do you get to know your audience?

The quote that opens chapter 11 sums it up well:

“If you want to create messages that resonate with your audience, you need to know what they care about.” ~ Nate Elliott, Marketing Technology Advisor

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