Once a year I struggle with mashed potatoes. I love potatoes in almost all the ways they can be had – as chips and fries (unfortunately for my waistline), baked, roasted, home-fried, what-have-you. But I never liked them mashed.

Bear with me – this is about communications, I promise.

My lack of love for mashed presents a problem each Thanksgiving, when the dear members of my family gather in my home for the annual feast. Everyone else loves mashed potatoes – they represent the holiday as much as turkey does –   so of course I serve them. Over the years, I’ve found a good recipe or two, and I feel confident they are up to par. Still, if it were up to me, they wouldn’t even be on the menu.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is what my audience wants, and I think that’s a mistake that a lot of organizations make in their communications. People tend to create what they like to consume, whether it’s a side dish or a solicitation letter.

If I could give one piece of advice to would-be successful communicators, it’s this: pay attention to your audience. They will surprise you.

I once worked at an educational institution that sent out a holiday card appeal each December. Each year, the card was similar – photos of happy, smiling student faces with a brief sentence or two. Everyone felt this was what donors responded to. One year, an interim director decided to change things up. He used a wintry campus landscape photo and an excerpt from a poem. The appeal brought in twice the amount of money it had the year before. Was it a fluke? We used the same formula the next year and it outperformed the previous. Contrary to original assumptions, it was what our donors responded to.

This shows that you need to pay attention to the audience, but don’t ignore your own taste buds completely. I recently took a chance on serving an apple, fennel and olive salad to half a dozen guests, and they loved it. It was gratifying, but the stakes weren’t particularly high – I wouldn’t have experimented with the entrée (chicken parmesan).

As you look over your communications schedule for the year, think about your audience as dinner guests. Does your menu include mashed potatoes? If the answer is yes, your bases are covered. Then go ahead and try a fennel salad with a small test group to see if they like the same things you do.

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