Skip to main content
Commsy creative stuff straight to your inbox


Stepping Out: five ways to know your audience 

< Blog home

Stepping Out: five ways to know your audience 

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch famously taught his daughter Scout that you never really understand someone until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them.

That advice holds good for internal communicators too.

According to Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov, authors of Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners, communicators can only function when we understand our audiences. “Being able to reflect on how staff feel, what they might understand and how they might react to a message,” they write, “adds value to our advice and differentiates it from the guesswork and speculation of other senior people.”

Internal communicators have a range of channels in their arsenal to seek their employees’ views. Surveys, forums, focus groups, social networks, ideas schemes: they can all be used to good effect.

And while feedback tools are essential for any organisation, there are tactics we can use as individuals to take our personal insight to another level.

These approaches can help you ‘step into the shoes’ of your audience – and keep them front of mind too. They’ll set you apart as a trusted adviser, giving you deeper insight into your audience and a rich source of stories that can be highly persuasive when influencing senior leaders.

After all, what leader wouldn’t want advice from someone who shows they have their ear close to the ground?

Get frontline experience

When former Asda CEO and Royal Mail Chairman Allan Leighton started as a graduate trainee at Mars, he was assigned to the Maltesers production line. His role? To pick up errant chocolates that tumbled off the conveyer belt.

Only after a frustrating morning spent pursuing them across the floor did his amused co-workers share the trade secret: step on them first, then sweep them up. With this secret, as Allan later wrote in On Leadership, they shared an important lesson: “operators know best, and getting close to them is key.”

Getting practical frontline experience is not just the preserve of graduate inductions or CEOs on reality TV shows. As communicators it can give us real insight into the challenges of other roles. It also helps build relationships and trust, and encourages frontline colleagues to share their true views more readily.

Managing by Walking Around

The origin of Managing by Walking Around (MBWA) can apparently be traced back to Abraham Lincoln’s practice of visiting troops on battlefields in the American Civil War. A century later management consultant Tom Peters helped promote its use as a tool to help leaders uncover the real issues in their organisations.

For internal communicators it can be useful not just for building relationships and networks, but also for checking how key messages have landed and been understood.

So how do you do it? Simply schedule a regular time to walk around your workplace and chat informally to colleagues. Arm yourself with open questions first. Check perceptions of recent messages. Or try a question like: “If there’s one thing we could do to improve communication round here, what would it be?”

Informal touchpoints

MBWA relies on regular, scheduled time to ensure it takes place. But each day is also filled with informal opportunities to get to know your audience better – at the coffee machine, in the lift, while walking around the office.

As communicators, it pays to make the most of these opportunities. In fact, Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov argue that if you lunch alone or at your desk, you’re not doing your job properly. You may not want to sacrifice every lunch break, but making the most of each interaction pays dividends.

Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, called these informal moments ‘touchpoints’. For leaders, Conant writes, each moment is an opportunity to “infuse the agenda with greater clarity and more energy, and to influence the course of events.”

For communicators, each touchpoint is an opportunity to make a deeper connection, to check understanding, to gain insight into how your audience feels.

Build your networks

In the 1930s, Franklin D Roosevelt became the first American President to cultivate a network of sources outside the federal government. Roosevelt drew on the views of businessmen, academics, friends and relatives to find out what was happening ‘on the ground’, rather than relying solely on official sources.

We can take a leaf out of Roosevelt’s book by establishing our own networks to keep our finger on our organisation’s pulse.

Retail giants like M&S and Sainsbury’s have highly-developed employee representative groups which are great sources to tap into. If groups like this don’t already exist in your organisation, why not set up your own?

Start an engagement group. If you’re tackling change, organise a network of change champions. Or simply set up an informal group of contacts across your organisation with whom you hold regular calls or meetings. The possibilities are endless.

Get your employees in the room

Even when you understand the needs of your audience, it can be easy to overlook them on a day-to-day basis. And while it’s usually a good idea to involve your audience in developing your proposals, it isn’t always practical.

This is where visual cues can help.

At the Big Yak in 2014, one attendee described an organisation that always has an empty chair at meetings. Its purpose? To symbolically represent the rest of the company, and give them a silent voice.

Your choice of workspace can also help. In Pre-Suasion, influence expert Robert Cialdini notes that visual cues in meeting rooms helped consultants generate better solutions. Using glass-fronted meeting rooms in busy areas did the trick. So did printing large ‘action pictures’ of employees working, and displaying them on their meeting room walls.

In summary

Building a thorough understanding of the needs of our audience takes time, but it’s an essential investment for communicators.

By stepping into our audience’s shoes on a regular basis we can give ourselves a unique insight into their needs – and actively use that insight to improve our organisations.

By Dave Wraith for Alive!

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“We had the privilege to work with the Alive team. It was our first time to be involved in creating an animation for our patients within paediatrics. The team were approachable, friendly, creative and very accommodating. Your vision for what you want to create, is at all times acknowledged, appreciated and accommodated by the team. They worked effectively and with great passion towards our project and worked not only alongside health professionals but also our patients who really enjoyed the experience of working with the Alive team. It has given our team the confidence and inspiration to do further projects in the future. We highly recommend Alive and their exceptional team.”

DR ELENI ATHANASAKOS, Lead Paediatric Clinical Scientist — NHS Barts Health

“‘The short animation developed in co-production with clinicians and young people is outstanding! Informative, developmentally appropriate, vitally fun and engaging. We are really grateful for the expertise of the Alive with Ideas team for their innovative approach in building children’s health literacy.'”

Kath Evans — Director of Children’s Nursing at Barts Health

“Our mission was to update our brand visuals to better reflect our innovative and forward-thinking organisation. After receiving numerous pitches from different branding agencies, Alive stood out with their clear passion and understanding of our identity and goals. We thoroughly enjoyed working with the Alive Team to create an engaging new brand that we are immensely proud of.”

Lianne Springer — Communications and Engagement Lead

“Alive wowed us during the pitch process and they didn’t stop wowing us throughout the whole project. Every person we worked with at Alive were so friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they do. They have worked with us to really understand what we do and have created a new brand and website that really stands out from our competitors. Thank you!”

Louise Burnard, Head of Marketing and Communications UK — Be | Shaping the Future

“I think the team have done such a brilliant job, particularly with responding to our requests. It's one of the best mental health videos I've ever seen. Very proud to be associated with your exemplary work. Thank you so much.”

Dr Anna Batho — Clinical Psychologist – Critical Care, UCLH

“We have worked with Alan, Caroline and the wider Alive With Ideas team for many years. In that time, they have provided a dedicated service that is second to none. We appreciate their attention to detail and creative approach to bringing our brand, communications and stories to life. And would recommend them to anyone looking for creative communications support.”

Georgia Beech — Internal Communications Specialist, Ocado Group

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist —

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q
Alive logo