By Author(s): Marc Revere 
Published Saturday, May 5, 2012
Have you ever gone to see a live rock-and-roll band that just seems to “ham it up” with one another while playing? How does that compare with the feeling you get when you see a play, where the actors are more focused on the audience than on each other?
In general, better musicians and performers reach out to everyone in the audience—those up front and those in the cheap seats—striving to make a connection. And our experience of the event is usually much better when they do.
But, you ask, what does that have to do with you? You’re an officer in the fire service, not a performer. In fact, each of us has many opportunities to “perform” to an “audience.” And that means that each of us must think about:
- When are we “on stage”?
- Who are our audiences?
- What message(s) do we want to send?
- How do we want to send it?
- Are our audiences interested in what we have to say?
Part of the role of fire chief is to articulate your vision, direction and/or the sentiments of the moment, at a graduation, civic club, funeral, or during a crisis. An example: Each year on September 11, I’m invited to say a few words at the Fireman’s Fund corporate headquarters. My audiences are the staff members of the company (which supports the fire service with grants), supporters of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and fire personnel from many organizations. The messages I’m sending are ones of remembrance, thanks and tradition. Thus, there are multiple levels of audiences and several messages. Note: This isn’t uncommon for fire service leaders. Oftentimes we have multiple audiences at the same venue—an academy graduation is a good example, because your audience in equal measure is the recruits, their family members and the training staff.
We all know famous speeches and look up to those who delivered them—Mayor Giuliani and President George Bush in the aftermath of 911; President Reagan’s remembrance of the Challenger disaster and his call to bring down the Berlin Wall; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what you can do…” rallying cry. Most of the speeches we make as fire service officers are hardly on this level. But we all have opportunities—at scheduled meetings or during crises—to provide compelling thoughts while leveraging ideas and encouraging action. And just like those famous speeches, ours will be better if we determine beforehand who we’re speaking to and what impact we want to make—that is, our desired outcome.
Know Your Audience
The following is an excellent acronym developed by international professional speaker Lenny Laskowski to help you analyze your audience and prepare for a talk (it can easily be adapted for written correspondence as well).
A nalysis - Who are they? How many will be there?
U nderstanding - What is their knowledge of the subject?
D emographics - What is their age, gender, educational background?
I nterest - Why are they there? Who asked them to be there?
E nvironment - Where will you stand? Can they all see and hear you?
N eeds - What are their needs? What are your needs as the speaker?
C ustomized - What specific needs do you need to address?
E xpectations - What do they expect to hear or learn from you?
According to Laskowski, it’s best to create specific questions like these and think through them prior to developing your speech. He even recommends asking the audience during the speech what they want—and then delivering it.
Here’s one way to apply the AUDIENCE method. Let’s say that you’re considering relocating a fire station to a temporary site next to a mobile home park while the existing one is being rebuilt.
Given your Analysis, there are approximately 80 mobile homeowners/renters with a very limited Understanding of the issue. The Demographics are predominately women in their late 70s, and their Interests are that you asked them to attend and they believe that they are stakeholders. The Environmental consideration is that hearing and seeing could be an issue, and they Need information from you. The presentation should be Customized, using only a couple of charts, handouts, and no PowerPoint, with the Expectation of making them feel like they are part of the solution and you need their support.
Now, some people are very technical in nature and they communicate from that perspective, while others are moved by emotions, and speak from the heart. Both will filter out fact or emotion based upon this bias. Generally speaking, I have found that using a lot of facts and figures will lose most audiences; however, storytelling sprinkled with some facts will capture their hearts and minds, connecting with their emotions. It also helps to move from “simple to complex,” speaking about concepts the audience knows and understands before making points about the unknown.
Levels of Understanding
Let’s take a closer look at one aspect of the AUDIENCE acronym—understanding. Audiences can be categorized into one of four categories, as outlined by David A. McMurrey in his book, Power Tools for Technical Communication:
- Experts: In theory, they know about specific projects, programs and products inside and out. Often, they have advanced degrees and operate in academic settings, or in research and development areas of the government and business worlds.
- Technicians: They build, operate, maintain and repair the stuff that the experts theorize and design. Their knowledge is highly technical as well, but they have a more practical nature.
- Executives: They make business, economic, administrative, legal, governmental and political decisions on the stuff that the experts and technicians work with. They decide whether to produce, market or implement it. Executives are likely to have as little technical knowledge about the subject as non-specialists.
- Non-specialists: They have the least technical knowledge of all. Their interest may be as practical as the technicians are, but they want to use the new product to accomplish their tasks, and they want to understand the new technology well enough to know whether to vote for or against it.
Everyone may believe that they’re an expert, but most of your communications (verbal or written) will be with the technician or non-specialist—that is, your firefighters or the public in general. Unfortunately, you are rarely dealing with just one type.
Focus on Interest
Now let’s look at another part of the AUDIENCE acronym—interest. For example, let’s say that a neighborhood group is fed up about speeding in their local neighborhood. After exhausting every avenue—traffic studies, stop sign requests, traffic signals, police intervention, council complaints—to no avail, they land on traffic-calming devices (speed bumps, humps, roundabouts, offset humps, etc.). Armed with this idea, they try to influence the fire chief to get their way. This can start with simple inquires to the chief, but more often than not, it’s done through your political bosses.
Digging deeper, let us examine each stakeholder and their interest. The residents have legitimate concerns regarding speeding; their interest is to force vehicles in their neighborhood to slow down. The elected officials now have the same concern; they want it addressed in order to meet the needs of their constituents, and they have another interest as well, to be re-elected. Local advocates could have an interest as well, using this this issue to be elected. The city manager or town administer has the same concern as the elected official: Make the problem go away, while at the same time they’re interested in keeping their job.
Your primary interest: response times. You don’t want anything to impede the progress of your fire apparatus. Thus, you are not a proponent for anything that slows you down, decreases your ability to meet your response-time criteria, or increases the possible of loss of life, as can occur when responses to heart attacks are slower, or fire is allowed to spread. Life safety is your interest, for your citizens and for your firefighters.
But most people don’t think that they’re going to have a heart attack or experience a fire, nor are they trained to think through the (unintended) consequences of traffic-calming devices. The neighborhood group probably thinks they’re experts because of the research they’ve done, but in reality, you are dealing with non-specialists. The fact of the matter is that you are the expert.
Remember: People connect emotionally first, then logically, and some do not want to be confused with the facts. So when addressing the group’s concerns, start with your concern, which is their life safety. Let them know that you understand their problem, but that as their advocate, you also are concerned that traffic-calming devices could impede fire crews in making a timely response when the group members need it most. If possible, invite a person from the neighborhood who’s been helped or saved by your firefighters, and have them tell their compelling story.
If emotions are running high, omit non-essential information. Keep it simple and to the point, use information that they can understand, and strive to create analogies and metaphors. A classic example is the time/temp curve (5 minutes to flashover is analogous to brain and biological death). Paint a mental picture for all to see. Remember that you’re the expert; the non-specialist is least likely to understand what experts are saying and has the least reason to try, so connect emotionally.
A Final Word
Using your position to communicate is key to moving your (public safety and messaging) agenda forward while leveraging your position and influence. Knowing your audience and being able to effectively engage their interest are essential.
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