School’s out for summer and for the first time, my 3-year old daughter is off to summer camps for parts of it. In a burst of efficiency and organization on my part I had sorted out all camps with ample time to spare, thus also securing a spot on a coveted circus camp. We’d been to the circus together over Christmas and she’d loved it so I was sure I was onto a winner. Daughter was indeed delighted and went on to ask me several times a day in the run-up when said camp would commence. Everyone had bought into the plan: daughter happy, mother happy. So far, so good. 

Fast forward to first day of camp: my wife picks up our daughter and she is not amused. NO animals and NO clowns she tells us angrily. Therefore NO fun and NOT going back. It made me smile, and then think, because as a communicator, creating simple and compelling narratives is an important part of what I do. In fact, I often describe my job as largely about interpreting between different ‘languages’, not in the traditional English-to-Spanish kind of way, but rather from business pertinence to stakeholder relevance and vice-versa, reframing arguments so that they fit the perspective of the receiver. In other words: it’s not about what you want to say to them but about what they want to hear from you.

I’d done that bit beautifully – my daughter was excited about the circus camp. The problem was, our expectations were not at all in sync and it didn’t occur to me until she came home angry. I knew there’d be no llamas and dancing dogs like when we went to the circus together, and probably no clowns either. She’s three years old, of course the activities would be geared accordingly. I just assumed she would too, but how could she? Her reference frame to circus, the frame upon which she has decided she loves it and would like to do the camp, was all about those dancing dogs. So where I had failed – and where we as communicators have an important job to do – was to genuinely put myself in her shoes, view the situation from her perspective, and tailor my message accordingly. Had I done that, my daughter might have been less upfront enthusiastic and required a little more convincing – an interesting infographic, or another one-on-one meeting, to return to the world of business - but her expectations would have been met, or even surpassed. Instead, she was disappointed, and blamed me for painting an inaccurate picture.

In conclusion: take the time to scratch the surface and make sure your target audience takes in what you are actually telling them, not what they think you are saying.

P.S. All’s well that ends well. By Friday afternoon, our daughter was proud as punch as she showed us her newly acquired ‘circus skills’ in a little show. Still no dogs, but there were mini stilts.

Julie Kjestrup

Julie Kjestrup is a director in APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office, where she heads up our energy and environment practice, and also works for clients on health care and biotech issues. Read More