Saturday, March 25, 2006

Did you get the message?

The most effective business communications are reader-focused.

Reader-focused writing is more than just good, clear communication. It's writing that's focused on the relevance of the information to the audience. Creating reader-focused writing takes effort and attention. Basically, you have to think about things like:

  • What does the reader need to know?
  • What is relevant to the reader?
  • What does the reader care about?
  • Have I answered the reader's questions, or addressed the reader's concerns?

I was reminded of how important reader-focused communication is rather unexpectedly yesterday, so I thought I'd share the story.

I recently joined the Board of a local food bank. The food bank's proper name includes the name of the neighborhood it originally served. A few years ago, however, it moved to a new location and its mission has expanded to include more than serving as a food pantry. As a result, the organization's been trying to establish a new "brand" and it now goes by its initials (which are stylized into a colourful logo).

Unfortunately, it's initials don't form a particularly interesting or memorable acronym. (I'll call the food bank: Silly Name Food Bank, making the acronym: SNFB. Obviously, that's not the real name, but that's very close to the actual acronym, which is four consonants (the last two being FB, for food bank).)

Yesterday we had a fundraiser at a number of subway stations, asking riders for spare change. The transit authority gave us permission to run the event, but required volunteers to be clearly identified as being with the organization. Since the purpose was to raise money to help cover operating costs (the money wasn't to buy food, as most people might have expected), the campaign was called: Help us keep the lights on at SNFB! This slogan -- the "main message" --was printed on the t-shirts in bold, easy-to-read lettering.

It didn't take long to realize that as people walked past us they saw SNFB in big letters on our shirts, but that didn't mean anything to them. We quickly realized we got people's attention by shouting out sentences emphasizing the words food bank (things like "spare change for the food bank" or "the food bank needs your help") instead of the campaign's official slogan.

This was a classic case where the communication was clear (even simple), but ineffective because the message wasn't relevant to the audience. Though there are rationale reasons for the food bank to be moving away from its official name, emphasizing the "brand" didn't serve us in this situation. What we needed to focus on was what was important to the subway riders as they passed us: who is hitting me up for cash? The message they needed was that it was a food bank (in other words, a worthy cause) soliciting.

Fortunately, because we were there in person, our loud shouts appealing to people to support the FOOD BANK trumped the non-reader-focused messages of our t-shirts and Torontonians generously opened their wallets to support the cause.

It was a good lesson. You can bet that in future fundraising campaigns we'll all be paying attention to what the audience needs to know, not just to the message we want to get across.


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