|Sharon McMahon is a former American government teacher who built a community of more than 800k “governerds” on Instagram, where she shares nonpartisan information about the U.S. government, world history and current events.If you haven’t come across her work yet she’s worth checking out (she recently won PR Week’s Communicator of the Year award). Last week, she shared an especially interesting study from YouGov about how we misestimate the size of demographic groups in this country—most often overestimating the size of minority groups and underestimating the size of majority groups. For example, study participants estimated approximately 26% of the U.S. population makes over 500k while the true proportion is closer to 1%. On the flip side, participants estimated that 65% of the U.S. population has at least a high school degree when the true proportion is closer to 89%.|
Looking through the data hit home how wrong we can be in the assumptions we make about one another, especially when we try to apply those assumptions to groups. From a personal branding perspective, this includes the assumptions we make about customers, industry executives, and policymakers—the people we most want to get our work in front of.
It reminded me of the importance of three things when working to better understand an audience:
Active listening: MindTools defines active listening as “making a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated.” In other words, paying attention to body language, tone and cadence—in addition to the words being spoken—to get a full read on what’s being shared. Active listening is hard because it demands full presence, but it gives us glimpses of the truthier-truth we otherwise might miss. Armed with these truths, we get a more genuine sense of the group’s needs, challenges and perspectives.
Listening beyond pain points: There’s no doubt that we want to know what people want to see changed (presumably, this is where we can help). But we also want to listen for information that points to values and worldview. This helps us understand the needs of each person more holistically, better informing our messaging, products/services and content.
Coming to each conversation with a blank slate: When we’ve worked in an industry long enough, it’s easy to hear someone describe a familiar pain point and assume we can fill in the rest. We can’t, and shouldn’t. How each person describes what they need is personal, nuanced and always evolving.
If we do this right, we should always be learning new things about our audience(s) that surprise us—all of which fuels the next iteration of our work.
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