People are funny, aren't they? They're quirky and strange. They do odd things and act in ways you can't understand. I mean, have you see the news, like, forever?!
People are not strange. They're not wackos.
At least, they're not when you try not to judge and instead, try to understand.
Our job as communicators IS to understand. To do this, we must first lose our egos and build empathy for the people we serve. We can only do our job if appreciate their worldviews as much as our own.
Because, I guarantee that if you spend time with the people you're communicating with, you'll be able to achieve the things you want.
Ignore your assumptions
The first step you must take is to have no assumptions. That's really tough to do. The reason they're called, 'assumptions' is that you don't know you have them!
The problem with assumptions is that they get in the way. They get in the way of your thinking, understanding and the actions you take. So, leave your assumptions at the door and step right into your audience research laboratory.
Be all scientific about it
Bereft of your assumptions, your next task is to act like a scientist. A social scientist no less.
You may not have a Psychology or Sociology degree but you must be as rigorous in your audience research as you can. See your study as some sort of huge scientific experiment. Be disciplined in how you approach your research. Generate hypotheses. Recruit the right sort of people and keep your sample sizes representative and so on.
With your scientist hat on - do scientists wear hats? - you can now work with the people you're interested in. Remember, you are trying to uncover...
1. What They Believe
How do these people see the world? How do they think it works?
What stories do they tell themselves about how you get on in life? Do they think life is fair or unfair? Is the world full of opportunities or are they crushed by life's challenges?
What you're trying to do is to generate a description of their mental models about the world. How they understand the world and how they describe it is what you're after.
This won't be a simple or easy task. Because the mental models we all have about the world are vast. Therefore, your description of your audience's beliefs will just scratch the surface. Nevertheless, gathering these insights is vital.
2. What They Value
This information will often come up when you're exploring their belief systems (above). Indeed, the two overlap.
What you're trying to do here is work out what people think is essential in life. And, by definition, what they think is not.
Human beings have values we all share. For example, we tend to value family over strangers. We value 'belonging' to someone, something and somewhere.
We value our health. We value our freedom and the opportunity to live our lives as we wish.
What you're trying to do then is understand relative values. Some people will value education more than others. Some will value a sense of independence. Others a sense of security. And some will value things that will make your head spin!
What people value will vary across cultures and life stages. For example, some people will value their religious identity more than others. Older people may appreciate solitude more than younger people, perhaps.
Of course, there will always be individual differences. We mustn't stereotype people either. The world would be a boring place if we were all the same! What you're trying to do is capture a broad sense of what the people value.
3. Who They Trust
This is always interesting.
Research suggests that people trust experts and organisations less than ever. There's also been a decline in trust of the media. No one, it seems, trusts anyone anymore. What a shame.
Yet people still place their trust in others.
They trust their family. They trust their friends. They tend to trust health professionals and those who care for them. And while they don't trust politicians, there are often political and other high-profile characters - both at the local and national level - who people trust
When I've conducted this type of research, I've found that you have to dig deep to discover who people trust You need to deliberately ask who they trust and why.
Your target audiences will have not usually thought about this before. They will probably scoff at the idea that they trust anyone except themselves. But ask them anyway.
How do you conduct this research?
There are many ways you can find all this out. They include techniques such as face-to-face interviews, focus groups, online surveys and the like.
You can also conduct ethnographic research. This is where you spend time with people in their 'natural' environments and observe what they say and do.
You can also gather useful information from the web. This type of data can be collected from online discussion forums, social media sites and even ratings and review platforms e.g. TripAdvisor or Amazon.
What to do with this research?
If you take even the smallest steps in this direction and genuinely try to understand what people believe, what they value and who they trust, you'll be better off.
The vast majority of businesses and organisations rarely, if ever, conduct this research. They just pump out messages in the vain hope something will stick aka. 'mud at a wall'.
Having even the slightest inkling of this information you'll become an Influence Ninja! You will be better placed to develop effective messages and marketing communications. This is because you know with certainty what to say, how to say it and who to say it for you.
The ethical bit
It should go without saying - but I'm going to say it anyway - all of this should be done ethically.
Everyone you speak with should know what you're trying to do and why. And when you apply the findings of your research, you should again do so with the highest moral standards.
Because, in the end, all that we professional persuaders are doing is explaining.