I’ve embedded an audio version of this post. Of course, the voice is AI generated but please let me know how you feel about this feature. Thanks!

Ever get out of a meeting thinking that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back? When you consider it, getting someone to read or listen to you is a transaction. They are giving you their time in expectation of knowledge or entertainment. Unless you are famous or in a position of power, their willingness to invest time with with you is very limited.

Like any financial transaction, your audience is constantly evaluating the value they receive against the time they’re investing. They may not realize it, but you should be acutely aware that their attention is being tugged away by their email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and myriad other entertainment feeds. As my wife explains when I’m working with our dog Venn: if I want her attention, I must be more interesting than a squirrel.

That’s not to insult your audience, but you are in competition for their attention. This doesn’t mean pander to what they want to hear, but if you want people to hear your message, think carefully about how you deliver your message.

Many years and several companies ago, I was involved in a bid to provide a rocket aiming system. Although the line can get very fuzzy, for the purposes of this post, rockets have no means of making course corrections while in flight.  A missile is constantly modifying its course to hit a target. As I said, it’s a very simplistic explanation.

Having provided the firing system, we felt confident of winning. That is, until one of our engineers wanted to show off his vast knowledge of rocketry. Don’t get me wrong, hitting a target at any significant distance with a rocket is hard. Just watch any of the Vietnam-era video clips of helicopters firing rockets.

I know a little about the problems in aiming a rocket, but our engineer was truly an expert. He could talk about base burn, drag, Bernoulli forces, etc., for hours. But when he told our prospective customer that without the proper algorithm and data, they were almost as likely to have the rocket come back and hit the launcher, he lost all credibility.

He was right, of course, I said he was an expert, but his example was so extreme that intuitively they knew he was wrong. That’s the point I want to make.

He was so wrapped up in showing off the depth of his knowledge, he forgot people have been firing rockets for centuries. His example failed the common sense test. He wanted his audience to see just how difficult aiming a rocket is and they would be foolhardy if they selected another company.

What they really needed to hear was how we could significantly boost their chances of hitting the target, and at what cost.

They had a need, improve their rocket aiming. He had a message, without his aid they were safer throwing rocks. He was totally ignoring their need. I don’t know how the story ended, I do know that was the last time they asked us about rockets. He absolutely knew his subject but by the end of the meeting our company had lost all credibility with our customer.

We always have an opinion when someone asks for help. It’s only natural for us to heavily season our response with our personal views and knowledge. Before we do that, we need to ask ourselves what do they want to hear. Often, we only hear a few keywords before we’re already formulating our response. We complain about customer service AI responses based on keywords but that’s exactly what we’re doing. Like those automated AI responses, our audiences have to consider themselves lucky if our response is anywhere close to any answer they might be seeking.

On the other hand, if we show we’re listening to them and give them an answer they can understand rather than showing off our massive ego, we might just be able to work together.

Just in case I was too obtuse, this isn’t limited to rocket scientists. Way too often, we give a response based on  our own priorities rather than listening to what our audience needs.

Before you write that first sentence, before you respond to a question, take the time to think about your audience. What do they need to hear? Why would they want to read your message? What are they interested in? Why will they continue reading? Trust me, it’s not because they want to read the ramblings of an oversized ego.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about this. Sadly, I don’t always heed my own words and have to remind myself every once in a while. There’s a big difference between speaking at someone and speaking to someone and the golden rule of writing should be, speak to your audience, not at your audience. Always remember, the time they spend with you is by choice.

© 2024, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.