Saturday, September 6, 2008

Past Deadline: Communication 101 - Your audience is loopy

Hey y'all. Since the mid-1990s I've been writing a "humour" column called "Past Deadline" for a weekly newspaper in my town called The Perth Courier. It's a dandy paper. Many years ago I worked there as a (gasp!) reporter.

For years the newspaper has had an accompanying website and my column was also published online so it could be read by my (seven) adoring fans spanning the globe. Well, the mothership company that owns the paper has recently redesigned the website and hasn't gotten around to linking up the columnists. So I, being inclined to share (self-absorbed), decided I would post my columns in this space so my many (seven) fans could find them here - assuming they know where to look and all. Clever me, it also guarantees that I will have at least one post per week on my blog so that my legions of (seven) fans won't wander off and forget I exist, assuming I remember to post it and assuming those folks haven't already wandered away.

Anyway, here is last week's column, published in The Perth Courier, Wednesday, Sept. 3:

Communication 101: Your audience is loopy

Something I’ve learned over time is the importance of knowing one’s audience. Assuming you have one, that is.

In general, though, it’s good to think about how a person is going to react to the things you say or write.

You don’t have to dwell on it. I mean, if I’m e-mailing Groom-boy to ask him to pick up milk on the way home, it shouldn’t require a lot of strategy – unless there is peril associated with the task.

If Groom-boy has rage issues with cows or if he finds the journey to the corner store to be fraught with pianos falling from the sky, I may have to work on that e-mail a little and word my request carefully.

This is called taking an indirect strategy and using persuasive writing.

“Dearest Groom-boy: Have I told you lately how much I appreciate your home-delivery service? Your family can always count on you to bring us the things we need. On such a fine day as this, free from falling pianos of any kind, couldest thou fetchest some lovely moo juice from ye olde corner store? Pretty please?”

Most of the time, though, a direct strategy works just fine: “Hey, Groom-boy. Please bring home milk. Thanks.”

The direct strategy is probably the most frequently used and most efficient form of relaying a message in our busy world.

Sometimes, though, just when you think you’ve got your audience pegged, they up and take something the wrong way.

Here’s an example.

My mother-in-law sometimes sends us clippings of newspaper articles she thinks we might find useful. Usually she scribbles a little note at the top such as, “In case you didn’t see this” or “Read this!!!!” Even when there isn’t a note it’s usually fairly obvious why she thinks we might be interested in the topic.

Because they live close by, we often find these clippings just inside the back door in the sun porch. Last week I retrieved a clipping called “Manners A,B,C: Instilling good manners early sets up children for success as adults.” There was no note with it.

In a nutshell, the article was about a woman who teaches modern manners to kids ages four to seven. It reflected on how television and lax parental discipline over the last few decades have led to bad manners and a lack of civility in young people, and this poor etiquette is actually jeopardizing their chances at things like job interviews. It said reinforcing good manners has to start at an early age.

It was an interesting article, but my gut churned as I read it.

“What are my in-laws trying to say?” I wondered. I mean, I know Boychild and Girlchild have some issues – interrupting and occasional mouthiness among them – but I thought we were doing a decent job with please and thank you and how do you do and excuse me.

I fretted about this for a whole afternoon. Groom-boy came home and I waved the paper in front of him and raved about the meaning behind the message. He got kind of a glazed look in his eyes and decided it would be a good time to go for milk. Again.

The next day my mother-in-law was outside. She smiled and waved and we chatted and she said, “Oh, you know that article I sent over yesterday? I just thought it was interesting how you folks are reinforcing the very things that woman was talking about.”

Phew! “Oh, I’m glad to hear that!” I exclaimed. “I thought you were trying to tell us our kids are rude!”

A look of horror crossed her face. Obviously it had never occurred to her the clipping might be taken the opposite way.

Arguably, sending a clipping implying rudeness would be just, well, rude!

Just goes to show you, though, you should always consider that your audience may be sleep-deprived, overly sensitive and slightly loopy. Some might say cynical, too.

By the way, I should mention Groom-boy has no issues with cows, pianos or retrieving milk. He’s very good at it. I wouldn’t want to leave the wrong impression….


Sparky said...

Where can I sign my kids up for these manner classes and do they hold week long summer camps? :)

Gen said...

Attaching your column to the blog is quite handy. I'd always keep forgetting to click over to it.

Manners, huh? My child approaches people at the park to ask for their food. But I'm pretty sure he says please.

momma's heart said...

How timely to read this. I've been learning a little about audiences lately. lol

In some ways, I hate the anonymous way the Internet allows us to communicate. But then, I remember all the times I've been moved to tears over some stranger's account of a slice of life. I want to be a part of that, in some small way... changing the world just a little bit, through the power of words and shared experiences. I have to learn to be thicker skinned, or forget wanting to have a writing-impact goal.

I'm not funny, so I can't change it like you can, by giving someone a much-needed, sometimes day-altering laugh. That is such a gift. I'm always blessed by your writing!

Steph said...

Sparky: I don't think the article said. Boot camp might work too, though.

Gen: As long as he says please and looks cute, should be fine!

Momma's Heart: You always say the loveliest things - thank you! Writers have to share - it's what we do. I always find your writing to be thought-provoking, honest and full of heart - don't sell yourself short! I admire your faith - that in itself is a gift, I think.

SexyMama said...

Hi Steph,

I'm so inspired by your posts. Made me laugh amidst sleep-deprived days, looking after just 2 kids, who r practically non-stop tho, making me ask myself many a times, if I had accidentally swallowed batteries while pregnant with them, haha...

i've just started a blog which i titled "My BREASTS, My Business!!" (lol). Only 3 posts so far. I hope I'm funny, I'm not sure...if you'd like to leave any comments, i'd be oh ever so grateful...coz i'm just too shy to let any of my own personal friends (or anybody who knows me by face) read them even....


Mama P said...

I love your new design and that you are adding your columns. And for godsake, I am supposed to link you from Momfo again. Which column was that on? Do you remember?