What to do with audience members who don’t listen?

by: Steve Dalton
Senior Associate Director, Career Management Center
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Successfully persuading an audience to act requires a convincing message.  However, not everyone listens to messages, as any teacher, consultant, HR professional, supervisor, lawyer, career coach, and so on can attest, so what do you then?  Especially when your performance depends upon reaching the entire audience?

The short answer is “Spend less time on messaging.”  New-and-improved messaging doesn’t reach those who don’t listen, so save your breath and time.  It’s insanity to try different versions of the same tactic but expect a different result, and messaging projects can be dwelled over forever while having limited potential for success due to their small audience (those who were already listening but hadn’t yet acted).

Avoiding low-potential projects to improve messaging saves you time, sure, but it doesn’t reach those non-listeners.  Reaching them requires a different approach.  Our career center recently changed its approach for getting non-listeners to act – specifically, to get students to look for employment off-campus in parallel with the on-campus recruiting our office brings to them.

This is an unpopular message, however.  Students dread the off-campus job search because of its (admittedly) lower convenience, ambiguous rules, and uncertain returns on effort. Historically we tried to combat this dread through messaging: by explaining the benefits of off-campus job searching, presenting statistics, increasing the frequency of reminders, etc.  All of those seemed only to preach further to the choir, who were basically OK with any messaging.  The non-listeners were the issue.

However, if my entire audience was already skilled at finding jobs off-campus, whether they listened or now would largely be irrelevant since they’d all find jobs regardless!  That’s not the case, unfortunately.  Some of my students arrive proficient at job searching already, some don’t.  Some arrive ready to learn, some don’t.  For discussion’s sake, let’s plot these (four) groups of audience members – universal regardless of your profession – in a matrix:

Stars: Stars are both already proficient and open to further learning.  In my case, this would be a student who is charismatic and networks with others easily (meaning she has “high” current proficiency) while still being open to further instruction from our career center. As a coach, I can take Stars from good to great, and I don’t need to worry about them.  This is “the choir” from above.

Learners: Learners are open to instruction but aren’t already proficient.  In our world, many students arrive eager to learn but not very comfortable with networking or making a good impression on strangers (low current proficiency).  We can turn Learners into Stars over time and continued effort on the student’s part.  Learners in your profession may be those who don’t like computers but are nevertheless committed to figuring out the new expense tracking system, for example.  This group is also part of “the choir” who listens to messaging.

Naturals: Naturals, like Stars, arrive ready to go.  I regularly see students at orientation who are charismatic and comfortable in networking situations (currently proficient)… only to never see them again.  They’re fine on their own and opt-out of any career center programming, having no interest in further learning.  (Thus, this is our first “non-listening” segment.)  However, because they are already skilled job seekers, their low willingness to learn does not prevent their success in finding a job.  The important thing to note is that messaging campaigns are wasted on this group – they don’t listen and apparently don’t need to.  In an HR setting, Naturals might be the ones who don’t listen at computer training but intuitively figure out new software and quickly pick up expense reporting in the new system.

Dreamers: Dreamers are the ones who keep us up at night.  They are neither currently proficient nor open to learning.  Worse still, this groups tends to think they are proficient.  At school, Dreamers may overestimate their charm or trust their GPA and resume alone will convince a hiring manager to give them a shot, so they throw all their efforts into on-campus recruiting and pray it all works out.  In other professions, these might be your audience members who hate computers and skip computer training, only to then call tech support monthly month for 1-on-1 help submitting receipts.

Having identified these four groups, a few insights pop out:

1.  Messaging may not reach Dreamers, but requiring them to demonstrate proficiency does.

Dreamers may not listen, but if they are required to demonstrate their skills, the difficulty they experience may make them teachable (i.e., Learners – not yet proficient, but open to instruction).

Our department leveraged this insight this year.  In a major shift, we granted students access to on-campus recruiting only after they showed they knew how to find a job off-campus – specifically by successfully securing and conducting an informational interview with an off-campus employer (we taught them the process from my book, “The 2-Hour Job Search”, but they were free to follow any method they chose).

Between our message that we morally owed it to them to require this assignment – so we knew they could find a job after we’re gone – and the compelling reward, well over 95% of our students completed the assignment.

2. When you reach Dreamers, your entire audience benefits.

Talent demonstrations help Dreamers recognize their potential for improvement, yes, but they also provide experience and confidence for Learners, Naturals and Stars as well.

In down economic years the percentage of each class employed at graduation may be 70-80%, while in good years it will be more like 80-90%. Thus, the battle isn’t really over the full 100% of each class, since about three-quarters tend to be fine regardless – it’s over the one-quarter or so who struggle in any economy, many of whom I’d argue are Dreamers.

Therefore, if you target Dreamers, your performance evaluations will improve, but all other audience members will benefit in the process.  (Messaging campaigns, alternatively, would only reach Learners and Stars, missing Naturals and Learners entirely.)  Additionally, our office received more questions about off-campus recruiting much earlier this year – “forcing” all four student segments to face an intimidating-yet-critical informational interviewing task brought a learning opportunity front-and-center to their attention.

3. Identifying individual Dreamers (or Learners, or Naturals…) is unnecessary

When I’ve shared this concept previously, invariably bystanders start assigning their audience members to segments: “Oh, Mary is a TOTAL Dreamer” and “Sachin is more a Natural than a Star.”  This can be a fun exercise, but it’s not necessary.  In 1-on-1 settings these segments can provide a good rule of thumb for how to reach someone, but if you’re trying to reach a larger audience, just assume Dreamers are out there and act accordingly.

This construct is less to facilitate stereotypes and more to point out that messaging does not reach everyone, nor will it ever.  Furthermore, spending a lot of time working on messaging is likely to offer only limited results, because the possible audience members who are both listening and not already helped by previous messaging is so small.

Also recognize that time tends to move audience members in a counter-clockwise motion around the matrix.  Naturals who fail to update their talents will drop down to Dreamers.  Dreamers who discover they have areas for improvement become Learners, and Learners who keep learning become Stars.

In closing, my suggestions for how to use this information going forward:

  • For any new initiative, ask “Would this reach Dreamers?”  If so, it’s probably a great use of time.
  • Start by getting the process right, and create the messaging for it second (since it’s easier to change).
  • Teach Learners and Stars; Require talent demonstrations to turn Dreamers into Learners.

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