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

What is the most common reason communication fails?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Woman sitting at a desk filled with books and papers scratching her head.

What is the most common reason for communication to fail?

When communication is more communicator-centered than audience-centered.

Messages miss the mark when communicators focus more on what they know, find interesting, and are comfortable presenting than on what their audiences need, care about, find relevant, and deem useful.

The most common communication mistake... Failing to be audience-centered.

This mistake is common because communicators all too often fail to conduct a needs assessment. A needs assessment can identify what an audience already knows and what confuses them, it can discover their values, beliefs, and goals, it can assess behaviors, how an audience likes to receive information, and much more.

Needs assessments allow communicators to tailor and personalize communication. They make audiences more open and receptive because they demonstrate interest in meeting the audience’s needs; and for that reason alone are valuable, even if you don’t learn anything you didn’t know already.

One of my favorite communication mantras goes like this:

Teach the student, not the subject.

Treat the patient, not the illness.

These phrases remind us that our focus must be on the people we are communicating with more than the subject taught or the illness treated. We may know a LOT about the subject or the illness, so it is easy to make those our focus.

What does this mistake look like?

When I introduced Purdue students in my Nutrition Communication course to the importance of needs assessments, I illustrated common ways communicators make this mistake using four visual aids. Let’s take a closer look.

One-size-fits-all clothing

How well do one-size-fits-all items of clothing fit? Are they really made for everyone? No. Whether a hat, socks, gloves, or something else, one-size-fits-all items will be too large for some, too small for others, and only just right for a few.

It is a mistake to assume a message fits everyone and force it to fit. The result is uncomfortable and ineffective.

Laundry list

Messages to be communicated are often organized in lists with check-off boxes. Although these “laundry lists” are handy for reminding us to cover specific points, they don’t account for what the audience wants or needs.

It is a mistake not to account for what audiences need and care about.

Cookie cutters

Messages can often appear to have the objective of making everyone in an audience accomplish the same objectives and in the same way, like cookie-cutters cut cookie dough into uniform shapes. Cookie cutters are great for cookies but not so great for people.

It is a mistake to not allow audiences to uniquely use messages to fit their lives and achieve their goals.

Tailored blazer

Sometimes we think we know our audience and have tailored our messages but then they don’t fit as planned. In the end, the communication didn’t fully meet the needs and interests of our audience. We may have hit the mark in some ways but missed it in others.

This mistake happens when we fail to involve the audience throughout the message creation process and we don’t take time to pilot test before final delivery.

To be audience-centered requires audience input before, during, and after message creation.

How can this mistake be prevented?

A needs assessment can prevent communication mistakes.

Audience-centered communication begins with assessing the audience's needs. Without a needs assessment, "knowing the audience" is nothing more than guesswork and assumptions.

Sometimes, a needs assessment will tell us what we thought our audience needed isn’t what they want or need at all, or the level we planned to present our message would have been too simple or too advanced.

If we’re working with an audience from a different culture, we might easily offend them if we don’t educate ourselves.

A needs assessment can prevent missing your target audience with your message. Communication is too costly in time and money to waste.

Check this guest post emphasizing that communication is NOT one-size-fits-all.

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” ~ Tony Robbins

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