The ‘cocktail party effect’ – the importance of targeted messaging

Imagine the scenario – you’re at a party, with a loud hubbub of chatter and music making it hard to hear even the conversation of the person next to you. Yet, when someone across the room speaks your name, it cuts through the background din and you hear it as clear as a bell.

Cutting through the din

Ensuring that your message is heard is the first of the three concepts that underpin effective communication.  The party scenario, known by linguists as ‘The cocktail party effect’ is a perfect example of a ‘message’ being heard above the background noise. It illustrates one of the most important techniques that we can use to ensure our message gets to the right ears, above all those competing messages – super-specific targeting.

Selective hearing

We all naturally hear most clearly the messages that resonate with us, the messages that we believe are meant for us, targeted specifically at us. We’re programmed to filter out background noise and to hear the things that we deem to be important – like our own name.  The same is true in business communication – we hear the things that have the most meaning and relevance to us. So it makes sense that when we want our message to be heard, we should be as precise as possible when selecting our target audience.  We’re aiming for the audience who are the least likely to filter out our message and the most likely to hear it above the background racket. The ones for whom our message will have meaning and relevance. If we can be precise enough, our message will act just as if we were using their name.

Narrow your aim

That means narrowing down our target audience to as specific a profile as possible – which is where many people struggle.  We have a natural tendency to assume that the more widely we spread our message the more responses we’ll get.  We worry that if we target one section of the market, others won’t buy.

But, although it may be counter-intuitive, the truth is actually that the more specific the message, the better the response. The more precise you can be in defining your audience, the more you can tailor your message to your target client, and the more likely they are to hear it.  It is the marketing equivalent of using their name in a crowded party.

Whereas if we try to be everything to everyone, we end up being too vague – no-one will think we are talking directly to them and therefore no-one will listen.

They understand me

I saw a great example of this approach recently – L’Oréal’s skin moisturiser range has 5 categories of products, for women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60+, with the messaging centred on the different needs of skin at each age. L’Oréal’s aim is clearly for women in each category to feel understood, and therefore be more likely to hear the message.

Say my name

To be heard, the first thing we need to do is to be precise and targeted. Think of your customers as attending a noisy cocktail party, where the noise is generated by your competitors’ messages. But you know your target customer’s name, and you use it to cut through the hubbub and make sure you are heard.

Carol Benton of Words2Win is a Communication Coach and Business Writer, who helps clients ensure their message is Heard, Understood and Actioned. This article is an extract from her forthcoming book ‘Are you customers getting the message’ – for advance information about the book, or to receive further extracts, please subscribe to the Words2Win newsletter, ‘Tips, Tricks and and Traps’ using the form below. 

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