The Right Message for Each Audience: Communicating with Parents, Colleagues and the Public

Imagine that your school district has recently adopted a new math curriculum that will significantly change how students learn new math concepts, approach homework and get evaluated. The explanations of how to do math problems and the expectations of students will be different from previous years — and probably different from what parents remember from when they were growing up.

Teachers need to tailor their message to the needs and expectations of different groups.As a teacher, you will need to explain the new system to multiple audiences: your students, their parents and possibly groups such as the school board, other teachers or members of the community.

Teachers face this kind of challenge every day: communicating with groups who need the same basic information but will have different concerns and varying levels of understanding of the material.

“It’s really critical to consider the audience and try to see things from their perspective,” said Jan Stewart, a career coach with Emerge — Coaching for Success.

Stewart and other experts offer these tips for tailoring your communication for different educational audiences.

Analyze the audience

You need to answer several key questions about the audience.

  • What do they want to know about this topic?
  • What information do they already have?
  • Are they likely to be happy about what you tell them, or should you prepare for resistance?
  • What is the best way to communicate with this particular group?

When it comes to a new way of teaching math, students will probably be most concerned about how difficult it will be and how they will be evaluated. If the expectations are different — for example, they will be required to write more detailed explanations of their problem-solving technique than in previous years — they may have some concerns about the new system.

“Parents are more concerned about is this going to enhance their learning? How will this be different? Is this something I can understand and be able to help them with if they get stuck, or is it going to be so different from what I was taught that I won’t have a clue how to help them with their homework?” Stewart said.

On the other hand, if you’re presenting to a committee or school board considering the adoption of the curriculum, the key question is: “How will it benefit the students and the whole educational culture?” Stewart said.

Tailoring your message

For each audience, consider whether you need to define terms, give background information or approach the topic carefully so you don’t increase their concerns.

If you’re lucky, you will be able to address each group separately.

“The easier way is preparing the same message for different audiences at different times,” said Robert Jolles, a speaker, consultant and author of books, including “How to Run Seminars and Workshops: Presentation Skills for Consultants, Trainers, and Teachers.”

This allows you to tailor both the message and the means of communication: You may introduce your students to the new curriculum during class, with frequent brief follow-ups as the year progresses. For their parents, you might first present it at Back to School Night and later send a newsletter that has more details. If the school board asks for a presentation, they will probably ask you to focus on specific questions.

Prepare a general approach, too

Don’t get too bogged down in specifics, however. At a school board meeting, for example, you may be addressing both board members and fellow parents — and even a few students. A college orientation for new students may include both the students and their parents. In these cases, you’ll need to craft a message that addresses all the different groups in your audience.

Occasionally, you may not know exactly who your audience is. In a classroom, you will quickly get to know your students and their backgrounds. But at a large public meeting, for example, it’s not always clear if the audience is primarily parents, community members, school board members or administrators.

Jolles said that when he addresses a large group, he adapts his message to whatever types of people he thinks are in the audience. “People don’t come with signs on their head,” he said.

Tell a story

Students, parents, even administrators — everyone remembers stories better than lists of facts or raw data.

“Focus on a nice story or analogy to get into ‘This is how this is going to benefit you,’ then go back to the teaching methods,” Jolles said.

Making the story topical — related to a current news event, for example, or drawn from the audience’s specific experience — can be helpful if you can do it without seeming forced. The same anecdote may well work for all your audiences.

For example, perhaps you can tell a story that shows how some students used to learn math superficially and would then struggle in the upper grades — and then show how the new curriculum would prevent that from happening.

Give reasons

If you expect everyone to be happy to hear about the change you’re explaining, then you may not need to spend much time explaining why it’s happening.

However, in some situations it can help to explain the reasons.

“People want to know about the change and what led up to the change,” Stewart said.

If you anticipate that your audience will raise objections or be unhappy with the new curriculum, you should consider not announcing the entire change right at the beginning of your presentation or written message. Instead, start by framing the problem you want to solve — perhaps new state standards require a new curriculum, for example — and then explain how you arrived at this particular solution (for example, a committee of teachers and parents evaluated five options and chose this one).

This indirect approach to the topic can help keep your audience engaged and understanding why something happened, even if they aren’t happy about it.

Answer the question: What’s in it for me?

Explaining to your audience how they will benefit from what you’re presenting is a standard sales technique, Jolles said, and it applies just as well to selling students — or their parents — on the idea that they should embrace a new math curriculum.

Some students, of course, will simply accept that the new approach to math is just part of being in school. Adults, especially those motivated enough to come to a meeting about it, may need more convincing. Jolles said it’s important to get to this key point quickly.

“Immediately hit me with, ‘Here’s why showing up tonight was one of the smartest things you’ve ever done,’ ” Jolles said.

Sometimes the “benefit” isn’t directly to the person listening, of course. The math curriculum may be more difficult for parents to understand, yet they may still support it if they think it will help their children succeed. School board members are probably not looking for personal benefit from a new curriculum but rather for evidence that it will help the students they serve.

Regardless, it’s important to make sure your audience understands right at the beginning that listening to your presentation or reading your message will give them information they need.

“If you don’t think you need to be there, nothing else matters,” Jolles said.

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