Alienating an audience: The risk of a ‘me’ focus

I attended a function last night where a speaker alienated a large group of the audience. It got me thinking about the way that the focus of a message can make or break a communicator’s connection with the people they want to reach.

It comes down to a simple question: is this communication about me (and what I want to say to you), or is it about you (and what you would like to hear)?

Last night’s function was a school concert, and the speaker in question was a spokesperson for the church where the event was held. I felt alienated because the speaker talked about the church’s history, its regular events, and his own experiences in getting involved. My interest factor? Zero. My sense that the brief presentation was appropriate for this audience? Below Zero.

At the time, I thought it was a case of an inappropriate speaker taking the stage at the wrong function. But actually it wasn’t. The church representative was entitled to speak and welcome us to his venue. And, with a little thought about audience focus, he could have given us a message that connected with us as a group and made us feel welcome.

The speaker gave us a ‘me’ focus – he talked about the organisation and its history and the people who work there. He even showed us a short video about the church.

But what we needed was a ‘you’ focus – maybe a short talk for the children about the wonders of Christmas, or something that showed he’d done some research about our school, or maybe even just a simple welcome. Anything that focused on the audience’s interest at the time would have been appropriate (i.e., children, performance, and the end of the school year!).

There are many situations where a ‘you’ focus is the only real option for success. Without a clear ‘you’ focus, there’s very little chance that the message will be heard (or understood or accepted or appreciated or listened to). Last night was a good example of that.

So, other than school concerts, what types of communication call for a ‘you’ focus? Most, but not all. I suggest that a ‘you’ focus is almost mandatory when the audience isn’t interested in what you’ve got to say, when the communication environment is cluttered, or when you’re asking the audience to make some change.

In other situations, though, it may be appropriate to vary the focus throughout the message. And  when you’re delivering bad news or providing detailed instruction, a ‘me’ focus might be more appropriate.

I don’t think that the communication medium or genre matter here: thinking about focus is important whether you’re having an everyday conversation, writing a speech, sending a quick email, or writing a more thoughtful document.

The take-away message for communicators is this: when planning communication, think carefully about your focus. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Is your message most likely to be successful if you build it from your desire to say something (a ‘me’ or ‘organisation’ focus) or from your need to develop something that captures the audience’s interest (a ‘you’ focus)? In most situations, a ‘you’ focus will give you the best chance of success.