One of the broader points that I don’t know if I made clearly in my last post is that effective communication depends not only on the message you are delivering, but also on the audience which the message is targeting. In the case of writing a resume, you have to remember that you are targeting a busy hiring manager who will spend less than ten seconds in glancing at your resume before making a decision. To get the phone screen, you need to tailor your resume for that audience, rather than doing what is most convenient for you.
This idea of knowing your audience resonates in all aspects of business life. It’s difficult to design an effective communication without knowing who the recipient is. But if you know who are you speaking to and the message you want to deliver to that person, it makes it much clearer how to design that message to reach your target. For instance, when a presentation is not coming together, I am often able to help coworkers by asking who the target audience of the presentation is, and what message they want to deliver to that audience. I’ve learned from my manager to ask of each element of the presentation “So what?” – why should the audience care about what I’m presenting?
As an aside, another aspect of designing effective presentations is realizing that you need to get the audience’s attention in the first 30-60 seconds, just like with a resume. These days, every audience has their smartphones or their laptops in easy reach with lots of distracting possibilities. So your presentation has to grab their attention in the first minute, or they’ll tune you out and go catch up on email or Twitter or Facebook. Any presentation that depends on the audience paying attention for ten minutes before delivering any sort of pay-off is going to fail because the audience will have been lost. As with the resume, what you are really trying to do with a presentation is earn the right to the audience’s attention for a little while longer. Structure the presentation in such a way to deliver value to the audience throughout, or you will lose them.
Being able to understand your audience well either involves empathy or experience. Empathy in the sense that it depends on being able to put yourself in the position of your audience to understand what they care about. Experience can sometimes substitute for empathy as you may have been in the position of your audience yourself (e.g. my experience as a hiring manager has made it clearer to me what other hiring managers might be looking for on a resume). Either way, though, the first step is to step away from your own knowledge and needs to think about what your audience needs to get from your communication.
This is also a key skill as a product manager – understand the target user, figure out what problems they are having and design a new product or feature to solve their problem. All too often, product managers start from a self-centered point of view and create a new product/feature based on what they can offer without thinking through what their user wants. This is particularly common in larger corporations where the product managers are often separated by many layers from dealing with actual customers or users. Meanwhile, in my time at Fog Creek, I spent enough time on the phone doing tech support and sales that the perspective of our customers was never far from my consciousness. Again, either empathy for or experience as the potential user is crucial to making the right decisions.
Developing the ability to effectively construct communications for a variety of audiences, whether the communication is in the form of a presentation, a white paper, an email, or a product requirements document, is a skill that is essential to corporate life (and, really, all of life). So before your next important communication, think about who your audience is, what they want, and how you can construct your communication in such a way as to get your message across more effectively.
P.S. It’s interesting to note how my thinking on this has evolved slightly from my post in 2009 asking what is the story, as I now realize that getting the story right involves understanding the audience. Stories are not universal – they are just one way to convey a message from me to you.