My eighth grade English teacher taught me an important lesson that profoundly affects how I communicate today, decades later.
The class assignment was simple. We had to stand in front of the class and tell a story.
We could select any story, but we had to tell the tale within five minutes. That can be a frightening experience, especially for most self-conscious eight graders like me. Fortunately, we were given several days to practice our storytelling in private before that dreadful moment when we had to stand before our peers.
Sounds simple, right? Well, hold on! The teacher had a surprise that made the storytelling in front of our classmates the easiest part of the assignment.
After we had each delivered our presentations, the teacher announced that we would be telling our stories again. Actually, he told us we were scheduled to make our presentations two more times—once in front of a classroom of innocent second graders, and then to a roomful of intimidating 10th graders.
Quite frankly, I’ve forgotten most of the details of my story but two things I vividly remember. First, I can still see the second graders as they sat there with wide-eyed anticipation looking up to me, a mature eighth grader. Second, I recall how too many of the 10th graders rolled their eyes in boredom and looked down on me, a puny underclassman.
That was not a fun experience. In retrospect, though, most of my best learning has come during times I would not classify as “fun.” Ultimately, the assignment taught me to speak with confidence, to practice in private before speaking in public and to focus on core messages to fit the most important items into a specified time slot.
The most valuable lesson, though, was this: Every story must be told differently to different audiences.
I’m grateful that my English teacher helped me to realize that one size never fits all.
The best communication happens when the message is tailored to the unique interests of a targeted audience. Otherwise, it will completely miss the mark.
In my early days as a professional communicator, a mentor told me, “If you aim your message at no one in particular, don’t be surprised if no one in particular responds.”
A communicator who thinks he or she can communicate to everyone in the same way is naive and feckless. A PR professional who disseminates information without tailoring the message to a specific audience is a fool.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as the “general public.”