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  • Gavin McMahon

Audience Mapping — How to speak to your audience’s listening.



“The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears, and above all our vanity.

The skillful propagandist stirs and coaches internal persuaders.”

— Eric Hoffer


On any given day, Facebook is valued somewhere north of $700 Billion. Not bad for a company that started in a dorm room, and doesn’t physically produce anything. Contrast that with P&G, Ford, GE, Boeing, and Sony. Combined, their market cap is less than Facebook.


Facebook has done something most companies aspire to but never achieve — to build around a human trait. Google has tapped into curiosity. Facebook has engineered narcissism¹. There is a design behind every like, friend, and comment. All of it tuned to increase your addiction to social media.


Engineered narcissism.

According to the creator of the Facebook “like” button, Justin Rosenstein, “Humans are very malleable. It’s like architecture. Architects will understand that [one] structure will cause people to flow while certain architectures will cause people to feel isolated. Others will cause people to come together. When you’re architecting software, you’re creating similar dynamics where you can result in people exhibiting different kinds of behaviors in their lives unconsciously.”²


It’s not surprising that Facebook’s algorithms tap into this. Studies show a significant correlation between narcissism, frequency of Facebook posts, and the number of Facebook friends.³


I ❤ Me.


We are all, to an extent, narcissists. That’s why Coke sells cans with our names on them.⁴ It’s why we can pick out our name in a crowded conversation.⁵ It’s why we react to our ringtone.⁶ It’s why artful communicators will work your name into a conversation. Narcissism is a spectrum, and we’re all on it. For most of us, hopefully, it’s healthy narcissism, dashed with doses of self-respect and pride. For a few, at the extremes, it’s a personality disorder, which contorts reality.⁷


Everyone has this reality distortion field. It’s a bubble that all those ‘me’s’ — (they) live in. They (those people staring at you with perky expressions) have to be the protagonist at the center of your story. If they aren’t the hero or heroine, you’re wasting your time. You may feel you have an attentive audience, but really you have people who have mastered the art of looking that way while channel-surfing in their heads.


So if you are out there selling what your company can do for someone else, remember, they aren’t interested in your company, or its storied credentials. What they really want is the solution to their business problem. Can you help with that? Do you understand what they are going through? The challenges they face? Can you make their job easier? Can you make them the hero that saves millions to the bottom line or wrestles with the dragon of remote work? Rolling out a new initiative or project? Who does it affect? Why will it make their jobs easier? Are their lives better? What’s in it for them?


Because “me” matters.

This idea that Facebook has so successfully tapped into is crucial to what you do. You could be a leader, or manager, coaching someone. You might be in sales, trying to figure out how to convince or persuade. You might be in product design, building a new app. You might be in marketing, building your brand through storytelling. Or you might be responsible for customer experience, trying to improve the customer journey. This matters because people are at the center of all those jobs. And you bring your own biases.

We like to talk about ourselves. It gives us a biochemical buzz. We spend 60% of our conversations doing it. On social media platforms like Facebook, tuned for vanity, this figure jumps to 80%.⁸


Even cold hard cash won’t sway us. In one study, two Harvard psychologists gave people a choice. A cash reward to talk about themselves, or a larger cash reward to talk about other people or facts. The result? People went for that mix of cash and the neurochemical reward of talking about themselves.⁹


Humans don’t easily understand.

You have to understand me. More, ‘You’ has to speak to ‘Me’.

Any human interaction¹⁰ relies on knowledge. It could be as simple as pushing a button on an elevator, or the user interface on a camera. It could be a conversation or a PowerPoint presentation. Usually, one side has the curse of knowledge — you know too much, and you are too passionate about it. This sounds like a compliment, but it’s not.


The curse of knowledge

If you know too much, it’s hard to figure out where to start, and how to chunk things out to make things simple for your audience. And if you really care too much, you are in worse shape. Passion is a good thing, but with it, it’s hard to figure out where to draw the line, where to edit, and when to stop.


Sadly, this curse of knowledge works against you. The person you are ‘talking’ to — through that conversation, presentation, email, app, or website — doesn’t know as much and doesn’t care.


We often enter conversations this way. We build websites this way. We run our sales pitches this way. We build presentations this way. And that way doesn’t work.


How to T-leaf.

Over the years, we’ve developed a very simple tool that can help you bridge the gap between you and your audience. An audience map that we colloquially refer to as a T-Leaf.¹¹ It’s a practical how-to tool, and a way to resolve Dale Carnegie’s challenge, “the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want, and show them how to get it.”¹²

[Click to Download a T-leaf template]


The T-leaf bridges the gap between “what I want” and “what they want.”


It’s broken down into three parts. Feel, know, and do. Start with what you want. What do you want them to feel. What do you want them to know. What do you want them to do. You might want them to feel inspired, or excited, or curious. You might want them to know how your product or service is different, why people value it, and the credibility of your brand. You will want them to do something specific. Click on a button, arrange the next meeting, or fund a project. It’s important to hone what you want down in a very clear and simple way.


Now comes the hard part. What they want. Here, it’s not what they want to feel. You are better served thinking about how they feel coming into this. Anxious, nervous, depressed? In a rush? Cynical, confused, overwhelmed? Whatever it is, this is a gap you have to overcome.


Next, what do they want to know? Here you are working against the limits of human memory and understanding. They are not likely to remember more than three things. To get it to stick in their head, you need to anchor it against something relevant to them. So what do they want to know? How your product can help them? Who else uses it? How difficult, complex, simple, or easy this is?


Last, what are they prepared to do? This is where momentum is important. On a UI, it might be to learn more or click the next button. It might be to share. Whatever it is, it should be something within reach. This is where most presentations go wrong. In a pitch, you want to sell for the next thing, not the final thing. Imagine you are giving a presentation on climate change or social responsibility in your business. What do you want people to do? Solve climate change? Really? Or is there something attainable that they can do? Swap out a plastic bottle for a reusable one or carpool to work. Make that next step a no-brainer.


Tone, Edit, and Action.

Your T-leaf can act as a north star for your project. Whether it’s a presentation or a user experience, it guides you in three ways. First, the ‘feel’ line sets the tone. It can inform the art direction of your slides, or UI. Want this to feel approachable? You might want to explore using handwritten typefaces. Simple? Use plenty of whitespace. The ‘know’ line is your edit function. It turns your vomit draft into a clean piece of writing. It focuses your information hierarchy. It tells you exactly what points you need to punch home. The ‘do’ line drives action. In a pitch deck, it sets up the ask. It helps you and the audience understand the next step. And perhaps most importantly, it gives you a concrete measure.


Mind the gap.

You will notice, as you start to put a T-leaf in action, a couple of things.


It’s easy to get confused about emotions.

Curious is a feeling. Understanding blockchain is not. There are plenty of emotions and feelings to choose from.¹³ Make sure that you are clear about these. Paraphrasing neurologist Donald Calne, “emotion leads to action, reason leads to judgment.”¹⁴


Ruthlessly prioritize.

It’s all too easy to fill in the, “What do I want them to know” box. Unfortunately, this is the least important one. It’s not what they care about. And, according to the rule of three, they won’t remember anyway. As you fill out your T-leaf, ruthlessly prioritize. Make sure you get to the top three items for each box.


Remove the big words and use simple language.

Remember that you have a knowledge gap to overcome. Whatever you are creating, an app, a presentation, you don’t want to make them think too hard. Time and brainpower that your audience spends translating acronyms, or parsing difficult sentences are wasted. You want them to spend their brainpower on the important stuff.


Tie in the big idea with the example.

Whatever your big idea, make it concrete. That will make it more straightforward, and stickier. You see this in politics all the time. For example, Big idea, then simple language and concrete example. In the business world, an abstract initiative might be, “Improve our Cx.” This could be made concrete as, “put a smile on every customer’s face.”


Most of all, mind the gap. You will have a difference between the left and right-hand sides. Your job is to bridge that gap between what you want, and what they want.


Remember, it’s all about me.






Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.

Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.


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