Is it time to change your act?

copyright: Louise RalphI was playing charades with some friends recently (okay, some of us never grow up). Apart from us all rolling around in fits of hysteria, it was an interesting insight into human nature.

Someone would get up to perform their charade and, after the usual ‘third word, two syllables’ mime routine, they’d launch into vigorous actions, most of which nobody could decipher.

They might be acting out the Sound of Music, but we’d be convinced they were channeling the Karate Kid while washing their car.

But instead of changing their actions, they would keep repeating the same thing…over and over again. As they became increasingly frustrated, those same actions just got more expansive and frantic.

By the time they’d dropped to the floor in exhaustion, we were convinced they were trying to be a wide-mouth frog washing an elephant.

It made me think about how we communicate – in business and in our personal lives. When was the last time you paused and actually checked the way you communicate? Is it working, or are you going through the motions, getting increasingly frustrated because you’re not ‘being heard’?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Evaluating communication takes time and effort, but it is vital if you want to get a return on your (financial, emotional or physical) investment.

Now is a great time to look at what works and what doesn’t – and take a fresh approach to your communication in the new year.

But I have to go now. I’ve just been asked to act out ‘photosynthesis’. Tip: Avoid playing charades with scientists or children.

“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

George Bernard Shaw

Another dragonfly flashback: First published in The Buzz, our e-newsletter (2006).

Are you getting your message out there or in there?

What’s your approach to communication? 

If your communication plan is focused on getting your message ‘out there’, you’re not alone. It’s easy to gather ‘hit’ stats these days, so we’re starting to believe a hit equals being heard.

We even measure media campaign success rates by the number of centimetres a story got in the newspaper, divided by something to do with ad $$$, times the… What’s that about?

It’s time to take the road less travelled when it comes to communication… and think about how to get our messages ‘in there’. Because (to really mix metaphors) using communication tools as a battering ram isn’t a good look.

And keeping ‘at it’ won’t make an impact, especially if what we’re doing is telling people what we want them to know.



Why isn’t anyone listening?
he trouble with communication is that people aren’t computers. We can’t put data in and expect a certain result. The way people behave, what they need, and why they ‘buy’ are more complex than the connections on our motherboards.

So if we want to do more than just get our messages out there, we have to take a good look at the market, who our clients and customers are, what they’re buying, and why.

Who are you talking to?
Think about Richard Branson’s fresh approach to promoting and running his airline. He succeeded where other ‘budget’ airlines had failed. Why? Because he knew exactly who he was talking to. And it wasn’t business class fliers.

Virgin was all about getting more average income earners in the air. And it started with a client-focused approach to communication.

What’s in it for me?
What will your product or service do for your client? Think benefits. Compare a Virgin ad to one for 
another airline’s business class. Different audiences… very different benefits.

Client benefits are about feelings and needs. Looking good (to peers, shareholders, clients, friends), working smarter not harder, being seen as ethical and (these days) green, being more profitable, saving time, being instrumental in getting the job done (…and therefore looking good), and more.

What is it that will make our existing or potential clients/customers listen and act on our messages?

A new way of talking
It takes a lot more thought and it’s not an easy process. Most of us are locked into just getting our messages out because that’s where our bosses or clients see value for $$$ – and it’s a hard habit to break.

It’s like learning another language. We have to take small steps, do the groundwork, and practice, practice, practice. And it helps if we can get others understanding and using the same language. 

Changing our language might help change the way we approach communication.

Because the companies that know how to get their messages ‘in there’ are the companies that succeed.


Adapted: Article first published in the Dragonfly Ink’s e-newsletter, The Buzz, in July 2008.


Keeping it simple…again

After a few years of being (almost) buried in technical writing and editing projects, I’ve decided there is no better time than right now for my dragonfly blog to take flight again. So arm doors and cross-check… we’re off!

I’ve always been a KISSing fan – that’s keeping it simple for success. So I often smile (and occasionally grit my teeth) at the things I read, virtual red pen at the ready.

Things like: “If in the situation where damage may be caused to the machinery during the towing of the machine…”

How much easier just to say: If machinery could be damaged during towing…”?

Unfortunately, most of us learnt to write ‘long’ at school and later during our tertiary education adventures. After all, we had 1,500 word essays to write – so getting to the point wasn’t exactly, well, the point.

But think about people in work situations, particularly on work sites like construction and mining. They have to get the job done, may have finished school in Year 10, and often have English as a second language.

Look back at that first sentence about damage during towing. If you’re like most people, you probably missed the second word (‘in’) so the sentence didn’t make sense until you read it again.

The worst part – it’s only the opening phrase and already your brain is switching off.

And when it comes to people’s roles and safety on a job site, switching off is not what we’re aiming for.

Here’s what we do want:

  • clear, simple language
  • tailored to your audience
  • with information they need and can trust
  • in a format that’s easy to follow.

So say what you mean and keep it simple for success. That’s smart.

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