You are swimming in a river that runs between steep cliffs.
Past a small sandy beach, the current suddenly grows stronger. A cold force pulls you down. With frantic swimming strokes, you try to escape.
After a few seconds your muscles respond. Your right calf turns as hard as a coconut. Cramp.
You are losing your strength. You trash around, your head goes under, you swallow water.
Then, you struggle to the surface and scream.
‘I am drowning! I am drowning!’
You probably don’t scream ‘I am drowning’ to inform people.
You want your audience to do something. Someone has to jump into the water and save you.
In the workplace, we think it’s perfectly normal to inform
In the river, the idea that you communicate just to share information is absurd.
But at work we think of informing as a perfectly normal communication goal.
Maybe you yourself sometimes say that you want to inform someone. Or perhaps you use a similar term – ‘explain’, ‘tell’, or ‘update’.
Yet in professional communication, informing is never really your goal.
Usually, you also want your audience to do something with your information. Luckily, in these cases, it is not your life that’s on the line.
If informing is your goal, your communication becomes uncompelling
If you decide that the goal of your communication is to inform, chances are that your story will be long and not very compelling.
Shania develops an app for elderly people to train their memory.
The board of a seniors’ association asks Shania to give a presentation at a members’ conference.
Shania is flattered, and she likes to talk about her app. She already has a nice couple of slides she can use.
But she has no more than 15 minutes. And she can think of 1000 things she could tell them about her app.
What to include in her presentation? And how much time should she dedicate to each topic?
At the conference, Shania first talks about memory problems in elderly people. Especially in those who have dementia.
Then, she discusses scientific insights in memory training. She makes a case for highly intensive workouts. New research reveals that these are the most effective.
Then Shania talks about how her team developed the app.
The moderator raises 2 fingers: she has 2 minutes left.
She clicks to the slide with the app. She starts to talk faster. About the game with the animals, how it works, why it is fun for elderly people. Fun, but also highly intensive.
Then her presentation is done. She receives a polite applause.
Ask for the underlying goal
Shania isn’t sure how she feels about the conference.
Did it go well? How has this helped her?
The problem is that Shania was asked to tell the members ‘something’ about her app. She received a request to inform.
That’s also how she defined her goal herself: to inform her audience.
Since ‘to inform’ sounds like a goal, she didn’t think any further about what she wanted to achieve with her information.
In retrospect, Shania would have preferred to formulate a more specific goal.
Luckily, such an underlying goal is generally easy to find.
There are 4 questions that can help Shania – and you – do that:
Question 1: Why do I want to inform my audience?
You should first think about what you want to achieve by telling your story.
You can do that by asking yourself ‘why?’. It’s often good to do this several times.
For Shania, that goes like this:
Why do I want to inform the members of the seniors’ association? Because the members are elderly people, and elderly people are my target group.
Why do I want to inform elderly people? I want to raise their interest in my app.
Why do I want them to be interested in my app? In this phase, I am looking for elderly people to test the beta version. Later on, I want elderly people to use my app.
By asking ‘why?’ three times in a row, Shania makes her goals explicit.
Question 2: Why does my audience want information from me?
You’ll often choose informing as a goal when you, like Shania, are asked to speak or write about your work. Or when you receive a task or assignment from your organization.
That’s why it’s good to also ask ‘why?’ from the perspective of your audience. Because, in fact, getting informed is not an end in itself either.
Why did the seniors’ association ask Shania to give a presentation? What is the question behind the question?
Don’t know exactly why your audience would want information? Oftentimes, you can just ask them.
When Shania asks the association about this, she learns that they want to show their members which opportunities apps can offer to elderly people. And secondly, they want to help Shania because her work is important for their target group.
Question 3: What do I want my audience to do?
After the why questions, you sometimes need to ask yourself one additional question: the question what your audience should do afterwards.
Shania may decide that she is looking for elderly people who are willing to test the beta version. She would like them to share their e-mail addresses with her. It would be even better if they would ask other seniors to test the app too.
Sometimes you don’t have a direct action as your goal. For instance, when you want to convince others that apps offer opportunities to elderly people.
Usually, in such cases, there are more long-term actions that you can think of.
For instance, to make sure that people choose an app when they have to solve a problem six months later. Or to motivate them to tell other people about apps.
Question 4: What would go wrong if I don’t communicate at all?
Are you still not satisfied with your goal? Then put the whole thing on the line, with a final question: what would go wrong if I don’t communicate at all?
For Shania, the conference is a bonus. But if she doesn’t go, she will have to find another way to recruit elderly people who want to test her app. Which will probably cost her time and money.
Can’t think of anything that would go wrong if you refrain from communicating at all?
Then it may be better to spend your time on other things – if that’s possible.
Life is short.
Use the underlying goal to focus your story
The underlying goal makes it easier to focus your story.
Often, you can explicitly mention your goal, and what you want your audience to do.
Suppose Shania can make a presentation based on the goals that she found by asking the 4 questions. In that case, it could look like this:
Shania starts with a short impression of apps for elderly people. And she discusses 3 examples to inspire her audience.
Next, she explains how her app works, and how valuable it is to have an easy, accessible tool to train your memory with.
Then she mentions that she is looking for elderly people who want to test her app.
She briefly tests the animal game with the audience. This way, people can get an idea what it is like to do such tests. And she receives the first feedback on it.
After that, she explains how long it takes to do the test, and until when people can participate. Participants can continue to use the app for free.
People who are interested can put their e-mail address on a list, during the reception after the conference. Everyone in the audience will receive an e-mail that they can forward to other people who might want to help.
Chances are that Shania receives dozens of e-mail addresses from helpful elderly people. The most important step she needs to take to make this happen, is to choose a goal that is different from merely informing.
Remember the mantra
Inform, explain, update… pay attention when you hear yourself use these words. Or when a colleague does.
Remember the river – the current, the cramp.
And remember the mantra: to inform is not a goal.
Arnaud is trainer, advisor and text writer at Analytic Storytelling. He helps customers to send out a clear and convincing message in both words and images.