One Way to Start Improving Your Communications Right Now

A large crowd of people, all unidentifiable

By Sara Veltkamp, Minerva Goddess in the East—


At Minerva, we often conduct workshops for small or grassroots organizations that could benefit from communication support but do not have the budget to hire staff or external help. I recently prepared and conducted a workshop for Pakistani activists visiting the U.S. through the organization Networks of Change. Through the preparation and facilitation for this workshop, I distilled Minerva’s lessons on communication that drives action.


One of the women who participated in this workshop is part of an organization that improves the lives of people with disabilities in Pakistan. On this U.S. visit, she got the opportunity to pitch her work in-person through a series of intimate conversations with U.S. media, members of the State Department, and leaders of big NGOs in Washington, DC. Presented with this opportunity, the first question she asked was: “What should I say?” It’s a logical question and an important one. No one wants to be unprepared in front of a room full of people who could help their work have a greater impact.


But “What am I going to say?” shouldn’t be the first question. The first question for anyone trying to persuade others to think and act differently should always be: “Who am I talking to?” The answer to this question will determine what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.


For most people, “What am I going to say?” is an easier question to answer. While we can always improve our presentation and storytelling, we know our work intimately and we care about our issue and the people we’re serving. We want to tell our story.


To tell our story in a way that resonates with our target audience, we need to know their story first. This isn’t easy. Which is one reason that most of us don’t do it.


Even if an organization has the resources to conduct interviews, public opinion polling, and focus groups, this information will not give you a complete story. As this Grist reporter articulates in an almost 10-year-old but still relevant piece about climate communications:


“Remember that people do not know themselves. That is to say, their self-reports on what influences them, what motivates them, how they make decisions, what they will do in the future — they are not reliable. People often have no idea why they do the things they do, or what would induce them to change what they do. They are very frequently wrong about such things, as about a million psych experiments have shown. Just as we are often mysteries to one another, we are often mysteries to ourselves.”


How do we get to know our audiences? Listening is critical, we need to pay close attention to their work. We must go further than a donor survey or a yearly phone call with key stakeholders, though if done well, these can be important first steps. We need to devour what they read and write, looking for clues about what they think and how they feel. We need to empathize with their day-to-day lives and research the trends that are affecting people in their demographic groups. We need to learn how to ask better questions that get to the heart of their values. Tools like donor or audience personas can be invaluable resources for communicators to provide a framework for this learning.


Most importantly, we need to watch and measure how they act. Every blog, tweet, Facebook post, and event can tell us something about what our audience cares about—if we’re paying attention. We need to set up smart metrics that track how our audiences act when they encounter us online and in-person. And we need to adjust when their reactions are not generating the results we’re looking for. For more on using behavioral science to support your communication efforts, take a look at this Stanford Social Innovation Review piece from Edith Asibey of Asibey Consulting and Minerva President Joy Portella.


For most of us, the idea of getting to know our audiences this well is overwhelming. We are already trying to do so much with causes that are critically important but under-resourced. The good news is that you can learn as you go, testing assumptions and refining with results. Communicating should always be an iterative process.


The Minerva team wrestles daily with the challenges of defining and understanding audiences. As you can tell from this blog, we’re a little obsessed with it. If you want to learn more about our thinking on this topic or share some of the challenges you’re facing, contact us!


About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in Chicago, Illinois and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.