How Pina Coladas Made Me A Better Communicator

After spending most of my career in sales and marketing, I know the importance of being able to  communicate clearly. To do so, we need to know where the audience is coming so that we can effectively get the message across. That is, we must understand what is the audience looking for and why are they interested in what we have to say?

Effective communicators frame a message from the listener’s perspective in order to relate it to his or her needs. Sophisticated marketers use various techniques and tools to understand and properly target market but this form of empathy is not their exclusive domain. Anyone can improve public communications by taking the listener’s role and asking the simple question,  “What’s in it for me”.

I remember when I first realized that public communication is all about connecting with the audience. It happened in my senior year at the University of Miami.

In my final semester, I took a course in sales techniques. The capstone project of this course, which counted for half of the final grade, was a sales presentation in front of the class of 30 students. We could pick our own item to sell, then each of us would present it to our classmates, who would then review our performance and suggest a grade.

At the time I worked evenings at a printing shop and was planning to work in graphic arts after graduation. I figured, what better item to sell to the class since I was going into the field and already had some experience in it. I carefully selected printed samples and spoke with a salesperson, who gave me a number of pointers. After a couple weeks preparation, I put on my three-piece suit and headed out to sell printing to a class of college seniors.

I made it through the material without embarrassing myself but do remember that my classmates didn’t engage much and there were no questions at the end. Still, I was confident that the presentation was good and my grade would reflect that.

It didn’t. I got a “C” and the peer feedback was terrible. “Boring”,  “ZZZZ”, “didn’t understand it”, but the worst was “lose the cheap suit”.  I was disappointed and didn’t understand what went wrong.  But after some reflection, I realized that I was selling printing to an audience that didn’t understand it, didn’t need it and couldn’t relate to it.  The presentation was mediocre because the message didn’t fit the audience.

Fortunately, the professor allowed each student an opportunity to present again and possibly improve the grade. I signed right up but initially didn’t know what item an audience of college students would relate too. After looking around my apartment, I went into the kitchen and saw the blender. That’s it – I’ll pitch the blender, and to demonstrate what a great unit it is, I’ll make Pina Coladas for everyone

In the second presentation I intentionally started off slowly by describing the blender’s attributes, how well it chops up ice, it’s many speeds, etc. My audience was not very excited until I said “now we’ll demonstrate the capabilities of this wonderful machine”, then pulled out ice, juice and big bottle of rum. Then I made up several batches of pina coladas and distributed them to the excited class – all while keeping up a running dialog on the machine’s attributes. This brought all sorts of audience engagement, mostly classmates shouting to add “more” while I was pouring in the rum!

Now, this happened back when the drinking age was 18 so I doubt that a student could get away with it today. But, unlike my first presentation on printing, it was clear that the class was fully involved in this one and their feedback reflected it. Some of their comments included “Great job”, “Thanks for the drinks” and “Awesome”! I got an “A” for the presentation and for the course!

While plying your audience with alcoholic beverages is not usually an option, the takeaway here is that it’s always possible to craft your message to fit that audience.  When you do this well, the audience will let you know it. And when you don’t, they’ll let you know it too, especially when someone criticizes your favorite cheap suit.

Because of this sales class I learned this lesson early on, before even starting my career. And by applying the golden rule “know your audience” over the years, I’ve been able to build business with major Fortune 500 firms, some of which I continue to work with today.

For me, this rule is truly golden.

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