Grabbing the attention of disinterested audiences

I was talking last week to our local school Principal about the difficulties that the school faces in communicating with parents.

The Principal often receives complaints from parents that they don’t know what is happening – whether it’s a special activity at the school, some type of social function, or a request for a form to be completed. Parents often say that they would have been involved in an activity, if they had known it was happening.

The Principal is at a loss about what to do. She works hard to communicate with parents: she includes information in the regular school newsletter, sends material home with children, and encourages the children to talk to their parents about school activities.

What else can she do?

The Principal’s frustration is one that is common for many organisations. Often organisations are providing information that their audiences need (or will benefit from in some way). But their audiences aren’t interested. And grabbing the attention of disinterested audiences is a constant challenge.

I think it makes sense to start with the assumption that audiences often don’t know and don’t care about your message. As a communicator, your job is to attract their attention and persuade them to take notice. So what strategies are available for catching the attention of disinterested audiences?

The most obvious option is to add to the general communication clutter by making your message available in multiple locations and on multiple occasions. So instead of announcing an event once in the newsletter, announce it four or five times. Combine this with as many other channels of information as you can (such as posters, flyers, websites, emails, and so on).

It also makes sense to construct your message from the point of view of the audience. As you write your message, think about what the experience of receiving it will be like, and how you can structure it so that it’s interesting to the audience. Why should the audience care? What’s in it for them? In the school setting, how can you persuade children to take the message home to their parents?

Another option is to use some device to attract the audience’s attention – perhaps by incorporating something that is more immediately appealing (free offers, emotional stories, good photographs, personal salutations, and so on often make sense here).

There’s no point in blaming the audience if they don’t attend to your message (tempting though it might be). Ultimately, if you have a message that you want to communicate, it’s your problem, not the audience’s. If the communication doesn’t achieve its goal, then you, as the communicator, need to think about making some change. And of course, you’ll never be noticed by everyone.