Lessons from Third Graders

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the challenges we face in truly engaging those with whom we want to communicate. The abundance of communication channels, from TV to radio, to social media, to digital advertising and print, provides us with an ever-widening list of ways to reach them. How can we know what works best in capturing our audiences’ attention when the options are so wide and diverse? 

Early in my professional career, I was an elementary school teacher. One of the first things I learned was that getting the attention of everybody in the classroom required more than one way of communicating. Kids all process information differently. Some respond best to visual communications while others do better listening to the teacher or doing hands-on activities. My third graders taught me something that has never left me: There is no one way to reach an audience. 

Those third graders are now customers, stakeholders and CEOs. And chances are, they are still processing information in the same ways they did as children. Some will get the majority of their information from social media, others from print or broadcast media. For still others, information sinks in best through charts, graphs and infographics. We cannot fall for the truism that “most people today get their information from X,” because if we do, we’ll inevitably miss an important segment of our audience.

This is why understanding the most effective messages, the most effective messengers and the most effective channels are paramount to effective communication. There is seldom one answer that results in success for all audiences at the same time. When we recognize that audience members have diverse communication preferences, we also begin to see untapped opportunities to tell our story to those who otherwise might miss it. 

Meeting this challenge almost always calls for a wide mix of marketing tactics that come together and reinforce themselves in a multilayered strategy. It requires figuring out what works best for the core of an audience, and then bringing more people under the tent through a combination of different messages (brief and in-depth), messengers (trusted and relatable) and channels (digital and traditional). Meeting those people in the ways they prefer builds credibility for an organization and loyalty among customers and stakeholders as they unconsciously recognize that “they understand me.”

Every audience still contains those third graders with hard-wired preferences. The only difference is that now, they’re all grown up.