Knowing Your Audience in the YouTube Era

A few months ago, when Senator John Kerry was in Pakistan to push for the release of CIA agent Raymond Davis, he held a Q&A with local media in Lahore. You can hear by the questions that the local journalists are not at all fluent in English. So when I watch the back and forth, I’m struck by the complexity of Kerry’s sentences and vocabulary.

Kerry doesn’t seem to be making an attempt to speak in clear, short sentences that the folks in the room would understand. Instead, he offers circular answers with words like “consternation” and “signatory”:

“Sometimes, to the consternation of many of us…”
“Your government is a signatory to that”
“We don’t want this relationship to come into a difficult situation because we’re unable to find reasonableness.”

What’s going on? Is John Kerry trying to communicate with the people asking him questions? If so, he’s not doing a very good job. He has forgotten to simplify his language to fit the audience. He doesn’t “know his audience.”

But perhaps he does know his audience — it’s just that the audience is not the local media assembled in the room. The audience consists of all the people who will be reviewing video footage of the exchange, including English-fluent decision makers in Pakistan and policy makers in U.S.

Jay Leno — and all TV stars who perform in front of a live audience and the cameras — know this concept well. The physical audience in Leno’s studio in Los Angeles is not the audience that counts. His real audience is middle America watching at home on TV, and he tailors his jokes appropriately. I know corporate executives who do as Leno does. They go give a talk in front of 50 people, videotape it, and then email it out to 1,000 clients. Their audience isn’t the 50 people who hear the speech live — it’s the 1,000 clients who watch it on YouTube.

Bottom Line: “Know your audience” is an axiom of public speaking and communication. But most advice on this front assumes your audience is whoever is in the room listening live. In an era of cameras and YouTube, your audience rarely consists only of the people listening to you live. Usually there will be (or can be) a YouTube audience as well. Communication strategy ought to account for this now-obvious but sometimes still overlooked reality.

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