Know who you’re talking to…

keep-leftDual lane roads in Australia once featured signs that said ‘Slow vehicles use left lane’.


Of course, that message had the opposite of its intended effect. Most people stayed in the right lane because, well, they weren’t slow, were they?


The traffic authority had a problem. How could they get people to use the left lane, and keep the right lane free for vehicles to pass (thus reducing road rage, minor dingles, and major crashes)?


The answer? Think about the audience and change the message accordingly. So the signs were changed to ‘Keep left unless overtaking’ and voila! The percentage of people using the left lane increased remarkably, once the ‘slow’ implication was gone.


Ah, but audience diversity meant that some still needed (and always will need) an incentive. This often appears in the ‘fine print’ (in 200pt font!) under these signs warning that penalties apply for ignoring the message.


On the road again… Do you remember those gruesome television ads from the early 2000s, featuring young drivers in horrific car crashes, gasping in agony as their life blood spread across the bitumen?


These ads were targeting young, and particularly male, drivers. But they overlooked one vital fact – young drivers believe it will never happen to them.

The ads barely caused a ripple in the psyche of young drivers, but it scared the wits out of their already stressed and worried parents.


Yes, it’s easy to lose sight of our audience when we’re caught up in a blur of creative fervour or are determined to get our message ‘out there’ (out where, exactly?).

Whether you’re giving a presentation, creating a display, writing a report or article, developing your website, or even seeking funding… you need to know who you’re talking to.


When you have a clear picture of your audience, you can design your message to fit their needs, interests and capabilities.

Putting together an audience snapshot sounds easy enough – until you sit down to do it! Try these strategies to get your communication on target:


Demographics make a difference: Identify your audience’s age, gender, cultural identity (ethnic background, religion, race), and social identity (groups they identify with such as sporting, political, and professional groups).


So what? Your audience wants to know what’s in it for them or how your message will affect them. Listening is hard work, so give your audience a reason to make the effort. 

Find common ground
: There is no such thing as an ‘average’ person. But some things resonate with all of us. As Victoria’s fires and Queensland Tropics’ floods in 2009 show, we relate to family, death, prejudice, displacement, tragedy and pain regardless of our personal experience. We also respond to friendship, freedom, love, play and celebration.


The power of one: Do more ‘hits’ really mean better outcomes? If we adopt a scatter-gun approach, we can end up touching no-one. Instead of creating generic and impersonal communication, try talking to one person. What is it they want or need? Why will they want to pay attention?


You’ll have a better chance of bringing your audience with you if you work out where they’re coming from.


After being the slightly neurotic passenger in four learner-driver cars (and one to go), I know exactly where kids are coming from. And I’m really looking forward to the ‘slow lane’. Clearly, ‘keeping left’ is as good as it gets for now…

The original version of this article was published in The Buzz, Dragonfly Ink’s inflight communication e-newsletter, in February 2005


One thought on “Know who you’re talking to…

  1. Deanne says:

    So true! Particularly relevant to a lot of government advertising aimed at young people over recent times.

    One truism about youth is the questioning of authority – it’s one of the defining qualities of adolescence and early-adulthood. So why would this age group respond to the ultimate civl authority shaking a finger at them and telling them they’re naughty and going to cop a penalty if they get caught (I’m thinking of road safety and binge drinking ad campaigns)?

    I applaud the ‘Slow down, Stupid’ ad with the young guy and his girlfriend clowning around in front of the video camera. I think this one really spoke to its audience. And it was aired in the right time slots during the right programs.

    Does anyone know if it had a higher success rating than previous campaigns?

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