Don’t Know Your Audience? Cover Their Values

by Donna Montgomery, Ph. D.

We’re often told by the experts that the first rule of engagement is this: Know Your Audience. But what if that’s not possible? There could just be too many to know individually, or maybe you’re going in cold, or are new in your job. Perhaps you’re communicating with a group in another country, and you’re not familiar with the culture. Appealing to each of the six values perspectives (or really, five, as very few inhabit the “Expansion” realm) is the key in such situations. After 3 years of using The Values Perspective (TM) Survey (DeCiantis & Hyatt, 2008) at Presidio Graduate School, we’re seeing just how useful it is to bake in values considerations when the goal is to influence thinking and change behavior.

For example, if you wanted to communicate about the massive topic of “climate change” to a group of disbelievers, what kind of message might span the five audiences? For most (if not all) of them, you would never even use “climate change” in your message – it would automatically trip the “resistance” button (those of you who have ever tried to convince cynical friends or family members know this well).

But what if you used words that resonate – or symbols, or pictures? Remember when Obama started wearing the flag lapel pin? The symbol – not the words – is what made the difference in the receiver’s brains. Research tells us that pictures reach our brains much faster than words, and we need to use this to our advantage.

If you have no idea who your audience is, the best approach would be to incorporate  words and pictures that resonate with each of the following perspectives in all your communications:

  • Grounding – basic needs to sustain life/healthy bodies, air, water, food/safety & security/cost of short-term expenses
  • Family – keeping the family or community together/loyalty/patriotism/duty to future generations/leaving a legacy
  • Organization – competitiveness/risk mitigation/data, reports, logic, experts/rules & regulations
  • Self & Other – provision of a range of arguments so the individual can make own decision/faith in individual ability to create change/offer of range of actions to take/impact on relationships/opportunity for learning
  • Systems – long-term thinking/biomimicry/collaboration/holistic solutions

The majority of the United States holds the “Grounding” and “Family” perspectives, while the majority of US business can be found in the “Family” and “Organization” views. (Presidio graduates – and likely many of you – don’t live in those perspectives, which raises an entirely different issue to be discussed in Part 2!). Using words and images that resonate with these perspectives  – that is, that address their cares & priorities – is critical.

There are additional considerations to be taken for communicating to each perspective, including who the “expert” is (e.g., a minister or Mayor in the “Family” perspective, vs. the individual in the “Self/Other” view). The locus of concern shifts as well, from within one’s skin in the “Grounding” perspective, to worldwide considerations in “Systems.” One can address the cares and concerns through “pain” or “pleasure,” of course – though using the “fear” card is unsustainable in that it always must be elevated to keep attention (Code Orange, anyone?).

Effective communication about the seemingly insurmountable problems we face is critical; we are running out of time, and we need all the help we can get. Weaving in the cares and priorities of each values perspective is a crucial filter through which to sift your messages, especially if you don’t have the luxury of knowing your audience. Using a tool such as The Values Perspective (TM) can make your communications more effective, and get the message through faster.

[Image credit: Life Historical Archives]

Donna Montgomery is an organizational psychologist specializing in developing leaders and change agents committed to a sustainable future. In addition to her consulting practice, she is faculty at Presidio Graduate School.

Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.

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