It’s Not About The Graph, But The Audience


It’s Not About The Graph, But The Audience

By David Zyambo

“If you would persuade,” said Benjamin Franklin, “you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”

One doesn’t have to be a communications expert to understand why we communicate—the basic premise of communication is for a speaker to convey a message, and conversely be understood by their intended audience. If you are a public speaker, the importance of knowing your audience, understanding their most basic needs and tailoring your message to their interests and level of understanding is key to success—be it delivering an address, a presentation, a speech, or simply galvanizing people to action.

In the last couple days, Zambia has been all ears on what I would call “unproductive debates” about the use and understanding of “graphs”, or lack thereof. I call it unproductive because this is happening at a time when cost of living is the 800-pound gorilla in every room you walk into today, youth unemployment is at an all time high, and debilitating poverty is knocking at every doorstep in our community. One would expect a more progressive debate to dominate the airwaves post a presidential press conference.

But on the contrary, we’ve seen members of the clergy taking to their pulpits, government ministers wielding their power, pundits of both the ruling and opposition parties, as well as ordinary citizens engaging in rhetoric to either rationalize or disapprove the usage of graphs in the last presidential press conference. Whether the president’s use of graphs was right or wrong depends not on the content itself, but who his intended audience was.

So the question we should be asking is, who did the president have in mind when preparing for his press conference? I’m asking this question because the very first thing a good speaker does when preparing for an address is getting to understand who their intended audience is—you cannot show up to a class of 10 year olds with a Harvard University level speech and expect to deliver impact. Good speakers always begin with the people they will be addressing in mind, answering these fundamental questions before they put pen to paper—who is my audience, why am I talking to them and what do they want to hear from me? Public speaking is akin to selling, where the product is your message—you can’t force people to buy a product they have no use for.

When people become audience members in an address or speech situation, they bring with them expectations about the occasion, the topic, and the speaker. And those expectations are restricted to their interests and level of understanding of the subject. A good speaker is always on the alert for opportunity to appeal to common sense and the people’s deepest needs—fully understanding that deviation from the audience’s expectations can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the address or the speech. In our case, graphs in themselves should not be the bone of contention, what people should be debating about is the audience—was that the right audience to assimilate statistical illustrations or not? A follow up question should be, who is the intended audience in a presidential press conference?

The concept of presidential press conferences is not new, it has been an ongoing tradition in many countries for hundreds of years—the first ever televised press conference was in 1955 by US President Dwight Eisenhower. Kenneth Kaunda, for those old enough to remember, was fond of press conferences—I used to listen to them with my grandmother when I was a kid. The purpose of these press conferences is for the president to connect with the public and ameliorate the risk of insularity that comes with holding high office—they are also a means to spotlight immediate challenges facing the country, communicate the president’s policy priorities to address them, and put the citizens concerns at easy—similar to a pilot making an announcement during moments of extreme turbulence on a flight. The general public, meaning ordinary citizens, are often the target audience in these press conferences.

Taking an audience-centered approach in this regard is important because a speaker’s effectiveness will be improved if the address is created and delivered at the level of understanding of their target population. So the question we should be asking is, how well does our population understand statistics fundamentals? Can our mothers at Soweto Market, whose biggest interest is where the next meal will come from, interpret and understand a graph—is that information relevant, or could that be viewed as a mockery to them?

I believe that we are always at our best when we speak conversationally, in ordinary-everyday language. PowerPoint slides are very effective in boardrooms—but when it comes to connecting with ordinary people, PowerPoint presentations often pose as a barrier between the speaker and their audience. Additionally, the subject of statistics is vast—for those who are trying to justify the use of graphs at a press conference, can they interpret and understand dendrograms, boxplots,
correlation and regression, path analysis techniques for model identification and fit, confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modelling? If they cannot interpret this level of statistical analysis, the same goes for our mothers at Soweto Market whose primary interest is the next meal for their children. My uneducated grandmother used to sit and listen to Kenneth Kaunda’s press conferences and have notable takeaways—because Kenneth Kaunda always created and delivered his addresses at the level of understanding of a common man.

It is important to always remember that the basic premise of communication is to be understood. When we are understood, we have an opportunity to appeal to interest, persuade, drive influence and galvanize people to action. To appeal to interest, drive persuasion and subsequently influence and action, it is critical that a public speaker puts together the right information that appeals to their target audience’s motivation. They must communicate what’s in it for their intended audience and craft their content accordingly.

I cannot explicitly state whether the president was right or wrong in using graphs at his last press conference, because I am privy to who his target audience was—not sure whether it was ordinary citizens, the business class or investors. But I saw it necessary to outline communications fundamentals, and let people use it as a point of reference in this ongoing debate.

“If you would persuade,” said Benjamin Franklin, “you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”


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