Message vs. Audience – Which Comes First?


by Laurie Jakobsen

In catching up on my weekend reading, I noticed the lead query in the Social Q’s column in The New York Times Style section. A self-identified Boomer reader complains about a Gen-X relative that is not replying to her emails but “has time to post on Facebook.”

While there may be a whole host of issues as to why she’s not getting a response, I think what we’re seeing here is a misunderstanding of communication styles and tools – and a great opportunity to examine the communications process. When people thinking about communicating, they think that their message is the most important thing. But I believe the audience is the bigger consideration – when you understand your audience, then you can shape the message for them, as well as what media you will use to deliver it, in order for them to have the best chance to hear and understand it. Otherwise, it’s not likely you will achieve the desired action.

In this case, it seems we have the wrong medium – the method of delivering the message. I’m not talking about a difference of generations, which is what the questioner seems to think is the problem (though it is true Gen X loves its Facebook). There are some people that respond better to emails, others to texts, and so on. As a communications person and a service provider, I can’t insist that people communicate with me “my way” (for the record, I prefer email) – I have to adapt my communication style for all my individual audiences, otherwise I’m not going to get the job done.

But for the Boomer Social Q writer, I would have advised her to pick up the phone. Something tells me this is about context – in this case, the state of mind of the receiver. People are prone to presenting a more positive state of affairs on Facebook (check this post on “Just a Trace” about her “perfect life on Facebook”). Her Gen X friend (described as a mother with young children) may be hiding behind her peppy Facebook status updates. This takes us back to the focus on the audience – if you don’t get the response you want, take a step back, reevaluate, and take another approach.

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