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The Art of Effective Communication

Creating an Audience-Goal Worksheet

Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher discusses how to create a useful document in order to communicate to your audience and set your goals for communicating as part of the Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health MOOC.

Excerpt From


So, whenever you're preparing to communicate, and again, in either written or oral form, one trick is, sometimes it's really useful to create a planning document. Now, you're like [SOUND]. Why do I have to make another document separate from what I'm trying to design? But honestly, this will help you. It doesn't take long, but what it does do is it forces you to think through your audience and your goals in detail. And that helps you to remind yourself of these issues as you're working through, and as you're presenting or writing for your audience. So, here are five questions I'd like you to try and ask yourself every time you're designing your communications. First, what are the salient characteristics of your audience? Thinking about questions of demographics, profession, their status, right? It could be, these are all people who have a particular profession. Or it could be, these are all people who are really sick with diabetes. Or it could be, these are all people who live in a particular neighborhood that's being affected by let's say, an environmental contamination problem. Whatever it is, what are those salient characteristics? Second piece here, what do you expect that they already know? Can you reasonably expect that they know, let's take that example of the community being exposed from an environmental contaminant. Can you expect that they already know about this contaminant, that the issue exists? Or do you need to back up and let them know about that? Can you already expect that they know where the contamination came from? Or is that part of the questions that you need to be answering when you're interacting with these people? So again, being aware, what can you expect that people already know is critical. And that relates to this basic, really simply summary idea. Why are they your target audience? Why are you reaching out to them? Answer that question, you're probably going to be pretty good about thinking about which characteristics are the most relevant ones for designing your communication. Second, what is the context in which they'll receive this message? Running with my example right now, let's say this is at a community meeting where lots of community members have gathered to speak with experts. That context will help you think through, what is it you want to get across in that situation? In that context, that's a face-to-face conversation with a large group, it's oral. But maybe you've gotta write a handout that people are going to take home with them. Maybe you're going to be videoed having the interview, so that's going to be broadcast in that community. Maybe there's letters that are being sent out to individual homeowners. Each of those mode is different. And the location, the place in which people will be interacting with it are different. Big meeting, at home, in a one-on-one session, had a government testimony. Again, each of those contexts are different. And what is the timing? Is this something that's happening really close to when this contamination incident first broke? Or is this some follow up, it's six months later, it's a very different time and space than when the issue first arose. All of those kinds of ideas are important. Third question, why might the audience care? And honestly, maybe they don't. But if you're trying to reach out to them, you want them to care about it. And related to that is, is what you have to say something that they're likely to accept? Or something they're likely to resist. Are they going to want to hear what you have to say? Or are you trying to overcome some hesitancy or apathy. Or maybe just absolute resistance to the ideas that you're trying to communicate? Four, what's my goal? What am I trying to do here? How do I measure success for this communication and again, I want to be clear. I want to focus your attention on the goal for right now, not the long-term objective, but how would you define success right now? And lastly this point, what are the barriers? Why might the audience not be able to understand or respond to the message? Language, if it's in the wrong language, they can't understand it. Time constraints, could be a great message, but if it's at a point in time in which they're not going to be able to process it. Too bad, not going to go anywhere. Maybe it's emotional constraints. Using my example about the environmental contamination, if you have a bunch of residence who are just learning about this for the first time. And they're really upset by this. You're going to have a hard time getting a lot of complicated details communicated in that moment in time. Same thing with a patient who might just have been diagnosed with a particular disease. That's the wrong time not because it's not relevant, but because emotionally the people aren't ready for it. Maybe it's just lack of background. If you assume too much about their knowledge, it's not going to work. So again, thinking about that background knowledge as a potential barrier. Now, I asked you to think about literally writing down answers to each of these questions. And it might seem a lot of work, but here's why I think this is really important. It only takes messing up one of these things to make your communication fail completely, right? You pick the wrong context, it's done. You use the wrong words, it's done. So, it really is valuable to practice asking yourself these questions as a check to make sure that you're not missing something. If you're going to put all this time and effort into designing a communication. And in many professional context, money into designing your communications. You want to make sure it's good. I do this process when I'm designing classes, right? I think about this class differently than I do one in which I'm meeting one-on-one with small groups of people in a physical classroom. So I'd go through these five questions pretty much before every time I design a class. Or every time I start to develop a new survey, or educational intervention to think through each of those five points. So, just to review, make sure you've got these five questions to ask each time. What are the salient characteristics of the audience? What's the context in which they will receive the message? Why might they care about this message? What's my goal for this communication? And fifth, what are the barriers the audience might face in understanding or responding to the message? That's it. That's all you got to remember. But asking yourself these questions can make a big difference.