In an early scene from the film Limitless, down-on-his-luck novelist Eddie Morra is getting screamed at by his landlady for not paying the rent. But as she relentlessly berates him for being a shiftless loser, a wonder-drug he’s swallowed just a minute before begins to take effect, sharpening his senses and jacking his IQ into the stratosphere. What Eddie does next is very smart; he analyzes her behavior, recognizing quickly that her rage at him is out of proportion to the past-due rent. His quick, skillful analysis allows him to disarm her by asking what she’s really upset about.

Next he spots a case law book sticking out of her purse and deduces she’s in law school. Armed with this knowledge, he uses a 12-year-old but suddenly vivid memory of a passage from the same book to give her advice on a class assignment—this after realizing that the pressure of a looming deadline was a big part of what fueled her outburst at him. The landlady’s outrage dissolves; her curiosity and interest are piqued. Finally she becomes more than receptive to everything Eddie has to say.

Sure, the miraculous intelligence-boosting effects of the wonder-drug Eddie takes are just fun science fiction. But the scene also illustrates a pivotal element of successful communications, whether personal or professional. If you want to influence any audience, you need first to learn about—and then to analyze—them, their needs and desires.

 Who Are They Anyway?

Begin by identifying factors that will tell you how your audience might feel about the message you want to convey:

  • Age/generation
  • Gender
  • Level of education
  • Role in the organization
  • Your relationship to your audience (Clients? Peers? Superiors? People who work for you?)
  • Their strengths (Technical? Detail-oriented? Big-picture vision? Networking?)
  • Their weaknesses (Technophobic? Easily distracted? Motivationally challenged?)
  • Their attitudes toward the organization and/or your message (Cynical? Ambivalent? Gung-ho?)
  • Their stake in your subject
  • Their interests and affinities
  • Their turn-offs
  • What competes with you for their attention
  • Sense of national, ethnic, or racial identity

Visualize for Success

Once you’ve identified factors from this list that might be relevant to your purpose, consider how to make your communication reader-centered. One of the best ways to do this is to visualize a face-to-face conversation in which you deliver your message. Based on what you already know about your audience, imagine their reactions to what you’re saying. Are they bored? Annoyed? Rattled? Enthusiastic? Surprised? If the reaction you visualize includes any kind of resistance to your message, think about where that resistance comes from, and shape your message to minimize it. What objections might they raise, and how can you head off those objections? Are there ways to make your language more reassuring or motivating? If you visualize hints of interest or enthusiasm, consider how the content, tone or style of your message has generated that positive response, and then revise to enhance that favorable reaction.

Sweet Are the Uses of Empathy

While imagining yourself looking into the eyes of your audience will help you gauge their desires and attitudes, it’s not enough. Trying to see out of their eyes is crucial too. You need to analyze the perspectives from which they’ll view your message, then tailor it to persuade them. Work on developing a specific sense of what it’s like to walk in their shoes, work in their cubicle, paddle their canoe. Savvy, successful businesspeople know that empathy is usually NOT a touchy-feely emotion that holds them back in a ruthlessly competitive environment. It’s actually a method of learning key facts about the people you want to influence. Put some effort into feeling what they feel, and you’ll garner powerful information about how to persuade, motivate or encourage them.