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The audience is never wrong


Audience directionAccording to film director Billy Wilder 'an audience is never wrong'. It's clear that as a trainer you have to forge a connection with your audience by pitching appropriately. The question is: when do you make those decisions about pitch – at the point of delivery or at the point of planning? Louise Birkett investigates.

Failure to connect with an audience, whether it's one person or several thousand people, can come as something of a surprise.

Door-to-door salesmen might be used to frosty responses, but how many realise that in some cases the problem is greeting potential customers with a 'hi, how ya doin'?' when the expectation is something a little more formal such as 'good morning' – or even 'hello'.

And what about the chief executive who couldn't understand why his Sun-reading employees didn't bother with the glossy staff magazine which was written in the style of his preferred FT?

Whether it's the casual greeting or the preferred style of writing both the salesmen and the chief executive have remained within their comfort zone rather than thinking about their audience. But if an audience is 'never wrong' then the logical assumption is that it must be the deliverer who, directly or indirectly, is at fault.

Photo of Janet Basdell"When you're standing in front of a group of people you can backtrack if they are not following you and make adjustments. When you're writing anything you have to reach the lowest common denominator."

Janet Basdell, Plain Words

So what is the best way to step into your audience's shoes and ensure that the material you are giving them, both verbal and written, is pitched correctly? And how far does the answer take us to bespoke training, with its consequent commercial ramifications?

For Plain Words MD Janet Basdell the key to correct pitching is preparation and researching the audience in advance. "The more you know about the people you will be standing in front of the better it is," she says.

"You will know about particular issues, such as how politically correct the organisation is: phrases such as 'brainstorming' can cause problems. You will know whether the audience has English as a native or second language.

"Native English speakers use a lot of colloquialisms and idioms but if you say 'that takes the biscuit' in front of non-native speakers then you will lose them because although they understand 'take' and 'biscuit', they won't know the phrase."

She adds that similar considerations apply to written handouts, although getting the pitch right can be harder. "When you're standing in front of a group of people you can backtrack if they are not following you and make adjustments," she says. "When you're writing anything you have to reach the lowest common denominator."

With a national reading age of 11-13 (yes, amongst adults) the temptation can be to reach for simple ideas but that misses the point: a low reading age doesn't mean the person isn't a grown-up. The trick is to take short sentences, simple words and the active voice rather than the passive – 'the group decided' rather than 'it was decided by the group'.

Equally, what a native English speaker thinks of as complex words may, paradoxically, be simple words for a non-native speaker.

The reason for the paradox lies in the complex history of the language: although English has a Germanic base, over the years it has taken words from Latin and Greek. Sometimes this has been direct, particularly during the Renaissance, but many of these words have arrived in English via Old French.

As a result, English can have groups of words with similar meanings: for example, 'kingly' (Anglo-Saxon), 'royal' (Old French) and 'regal' (Latin). While the most common words in English are Anglo Saxon in origin, people whose first language has a Latin root are often much more comfortable with our complex, Latin-rooted words.

Photo of Sheridan Webb"The idea of a role play or singing a song might work for a US audience but the Chinese way of doing things is very different."

Sheridan Webb, Keystone Development

Difficulties with the language aren't just confined to non-native speakers: punctuation can cause a problem for natives. Steve Knight, from Knight Train and Consult, delivers news writing courses for the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB) and often finds himself teaching punctuation on the course.

"If I'm doing an in-house course then I am usually able to research the audience so I know what level I'm pitching at," he says. "But for open courses it often isn't possible.

"I give delegates an early exercise which asks them to correct 20 sentences and that tells me whether I'm dealing with experienced people or those who, frankly, need help with the basics.

"It's not unknown for me to have people working at different levels on my courses but I always have that introductory conversation about why people are there and why they do the jobs they do. I find a common-sense approach solves most problems but there is always a difficulty when someone has been sent on a course and they don't want to be there."

While the lowest common denominator measure often means avoiding jargon – the person on your course who joined the firm a week ago will not be in a position to understand it – Janet Basdell says that a trick for dealing with reluctant attendees is to use the odd industry-related word.

"It increases your credibility because reluctant attendees may be looking for you to fail," she explains. "By using 'their' phrases you are saying that you know something about their world."

For Sheridan Webb, from Keystone Development, the key to dealing with reluctant attendees is to sell the benefits of the training by explaining what they will get out of it.

And as well as looking at the language she also counsels considering culture for trainers who are working with non-English audiences: "The idea of a role play or singing a song might work for a US audience but the Chinese way of doing things is very different," she explains.

Then there's also the question of how your audience will respond to the way you present. Many people have roles where they are used to sitting and watching PowerPoint presentations. Others, such as manufacturing supervisors, have jobs which require them to be more active – as a result, sitting down and watching a presentation will automatically be an alien environment.

This need to consider your audience does lead to the question of how far courses should be bespoke. Where is the tipping point when you are trying to balance the needs of your audience with the needs of your employer or client?

Sheridan Webb says: "The objectives of the course should be agreed and you owe it to the client to deliver those outcomes. But how the trainer meets them may vary."

Communications consultant Dominic Walters provides training in communication skills to business leaders. He explains: "In my case I am often able to research my audience before the session by carrying out one-to-one interviews or focus groups. This enables me to understand their issues and use them in the training session.

"So, in the sense of using my audience's experiences, the training is bespoke. But there is a core set of ideas and principles which remain intact, although the examples I use to illustrate them change with the audience."

Louise Birkett is a freelance journalist and internal communications consultant. She is also working on a post-grad research degree looking at gender preferences in communications and their legal aspects.


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