This might be an overstatement, but I’m willing to bet that I’m the only person on Earth who’s ever been frightened by Justin Bieber.
After all, in broad daylight the boyish, blonde, Canadian singer is about as menacing as … well … a boyish, blonde, Canadian singer.
But broad daylight is not where I saw him…
It all started with a text message last week from my neighbor, Tom.
Tom and his family were off on a European cruise and Tom texted me to say that his home alarm system had “detected movement in the house” and, as a result, sent him an e-mail.
Naturally, I was impressed. Our “home alarm system” consists of an affectionate dog named Abbie who doesn’t even have e-mail and who counts “excessive licking” as her sole defense against would-be intruders.
In any case, I texted back that I would take a look and promptly walked across the street to Tom’s house.
I began with a perimeter check, a tactic which struck me as both safe and appropriately crime scene-ish. Nothing. All doors and windows appeared undisturbed.
So I got the spare key and went inside. I don’t mind telling you, it was a bit creepy to be snooping around someone else’s house, especially since I didn’t even really know what (or whom) I was looking for.
Everything downstairs seemed in order. Up the stairs next for a quick check of the bedrooms. Nothing out of the ordinary there either.
At that point I was tempted to just leave. The only area I hadn’t checked was the basement (cue scary music). I don’t like going into my own basement, let alone somebody else’s in search of a perpetrator.
But I knew I’d never survive my wife Linda’s post-inspection grilling, a conversation that was sure to include the following question: “Did you check the basement?”
So I took a deep breath, covered my groin (not to suggest that it was entirely uncovered before) and down I went, hoping to find the light switch at the bottom of the stairs as quickly as possible.
I crept quietly down the steps and in the semidarkness of the basement, took a look around.
That’s when I saw Bieber. And yes, I definitely flinched.
Fortunately, for both Bieber and me, it wasn’t the actual teen idol … merely a life-size, cardboard cutout propped up behind a couch in the far corner. Unexpected perhaps, but not dangerous.
Relieved, I took a quick lap around the basement, cut Bieber’s head off with a knife from the kitchen drawer (don’t write to me, I’m kidding), locked up the house and headed back across the street.
All of which, got me thinking.
Thinking about how important context is in the way a message is perceived and ultimately, understood.
Bieber in broad daylight? Not at all threatening. Bieber in an unfamiliar, darkened basement while hunting for bad guys? Surprisingly so.
Same “information” but when the context changes, it’s a very different experience.
Your messages are similarly dependent upon the particulars of each situation. If you hope to be effective as a communicator, it’s up to you to take that into account whenever you write or speak.
In this respect, the single most important consideration is “audience.”
You simply cannot craft an effective message – one that is going to be noticed, understood, remembered and acted upon – without knowing (or at least guessing) who you’re talking to.
Think about it. Even something as simple as how to change a car tire would be explained differently – different words, different gestures, different pace – if you were talking to a 4th grade cub scout troop, as opposed to a group of business leaders. (Hint: You can talk faster with the cub scouts.)
And yet time after time, when I’m hired to write something for an individual or company and I ask, “Who’s the audience for this?”, I’m met with the kind of empty stares normally reserved for Justin Bieber fans (sorry).
Audience matters. Two suggestions:
- Narrow it down to a single person.
I know, there are a lot of people who might read whatever it is you’re writing. The problem is you can’t write well when trying to address a nebulous group.
When you pick an individual (real or fictitious, it doesn’t matter), on the other hand, to represent the quintessential audience member, you now have a fixed point to which you can target your words.
This makes the writing easier, keeps you away from jargon, and helps you determine which things need explaining and which do not (e.g., “Do I need to first review what a lug nut is, or does this person already know?”).
- Read it out loud.
I never realized I wrote out loud until I hired an assistant a few years back. Unfortunately, I was so self conscious with someone else in the office that I had to let her go.
But it helped me realize how much easier it is to write in an understandable, authentic way when you test it out on your own ears as you go. If it sounds odd or unnatural when you hear it, it will read that way for your audience as well.
Here’s the bottom line. Good communication – written or spoken – is authentic, targeted and appropriate for both the audience and the situation. Don’t write a single word until you first determine who’s on the receiving end.
P.S. If you see Bieber, tell him I’m sorry about the whole kitchen knife thing.