Teaching Students how to Analyze and Adapt to Audiences

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Communication Teacher






Taylor&Francis Online

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Not long ago, one of the author's students told him, “I won't be able to make it to your class today. I have to study for a test in another course. Will I miss anything important?” The author, of course, had heard this excuse before, as many of us probably have. What made this interaction more amusing was what, by coincidence, the student was going to miss that day: a discussion on analyzing and adapting to audiences. Had she attended the class, we wonder if she would understand the negative ways in which her excuse might be interpreted by a professor (e.g., “your class is not as important as others” or “you waste a lot of time on trivial topics”). If asked to name the most critical skill communication instructors can teach their students, we could probably nominate several candidates, but at or near the top of our list would be the topic covered in class that day. Indeed, we have argued elsewhere (Gass & Seiter, 2007) that, to be successful, a “persuader doesn't move the receiver to a message, the persuader moves the message to the receiver” (p. 113). Even so, as our example suggests, students are not always adept at doing this. What is more, the simple act of telling students how important it is to identify and adapt their messages to an audience's values, demographics, personalities, and so forth is not enough. Instead, we believe that students understand and attach more meaning to this skill when it is shown to them. For that reason, we have developed and used the exercise described below. The exercise involves providing students with a basic understanding and demonstration of audience adaptation and then asking them to practice and evaluate the skill. Although we use this exercise in our courses on persuasion, it could easily be adapted for use in courses in public speaking, advertising, marketing, and others.

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