Knowing Your Audience

This is an excerpt from a guest lecture I gave to budding filmmakers and storytellers in Kirk Fuller’s Introduction to Video Production class at Mendocino College on September 21, 2019.

When we are born, we are all fitted with an invisible pair of glasses. As babies, there is no glass in the frames, but almost immediately, life starts putting in different lenses. We get the lenses of our family’s values, the lenses of the various experiences of our upbringing, the lenses of social norms, the lenses of pivotal moments in our lives, personal and those shared by our whole generation. By the time we reach adolescence, we are all walking around with Coke-bottle lenses that distort the world in a very particular way.

So it’s no wonder that we sometimes have trouble communicating with one another. While we try to describe the world right in front of us—the same world in front of our audience—we see it very differently.

Walking Next to Someone Isn’t the Same as Walking in Their Shoes

I was recently listening to City Arts and Lectures story on National Public Radio featuring James Forman, Jr., who worked as a public defender with many clients from terribly traumatic backgrounds full of violence and poverty, often young men raised by parents who were abusive, addicted to drugs, and intermittently incarcerated. Forman told a story of how he came up with ideas while walking to work and recommended the same practice to a client. The client responded, in essence, “When I’m walking along in my neighborhood, I’m just trying not to get jumped.” These men could have been walking down the very same street. Forman made the point that while he was walking alongside his clients, he was not in their world. He wasn’t looking through their lenses.

The Lens We Use to See the World is Skewed by Our Generation

While an innumerable number of variables makes up each person’s lens, there are commonalities by generation and by circumstance that bring us together. Generational lenses are powerful because people share both their current stage of life as well as common social influences, having grown up during the same era. Circumstantial lenses are powerful because, regardless of age and stage, people who are faced with a similar dilemma or opportunity can find common ground. For example, parents have a similar desire to do what’s best for their children, and cancer patients have a similar challenge in navigating a broken healthcare system.

Probably one of the most important things to remember as we think about knowing our audience is that our audience is human, and humans make decisions based on emotion. It’s fine to provide facts, but recognize that we use those facts to fabricate the stories we tell ourselves, and it is our emotional investment in those stories that cause us to act (or not).

Any time I begin working with a new client, I ask two questions: who do you want to reach and what do you want them to do as a result? These two questions inform every subsequent decision.

We All Have Blinders On — the Trick is Learning to Get Past Them

As we contemplate the who-do-you-want-to-reach question, it can be challenging to answer fully, because when we look through our own lenses, there are audiences we don’t see. It is incumbent upon us all to look for people at the edges of our lenses and then to enlist their help to reach people at the edges of their lenses, and so on until we’ve truly and fully defined whom we want to reach.

During the U.S. Presidential campaign in 2012, Hillary Clinton supporters wore pink pussy hats to protest then-candidate Donald Trump’s treatment of women. Those who designed the hats left out large numbers of allies when then made the hats pink. Caucasian women have pink skin. People of color do not. That was a major missed opportunity. Instead of coming together as women, which would have been a larger and more powerful alliance, they came together as white women.

Not only do we need to look at the edge of our lenses and seek out audiences who do not share our backgrounds, if we are to be effective storytellers, we must also understand the values of people at the edges of our familiar zone and beyond. This is definitely an area where generational differences are often in play.

Baby Boomers

The values of each generation are rarely mutually exclusive, but they are different. The Baby Boomers (born 1946-’64) generally believe the following: anything is possible; equal rights and equal opportunities matter; Boomers are extremely loyal to their children; they are optimistic and involved; they value personal gratification and personal growth; they question everything; and their financial motto is, “Spend now, worry later.”

Gen X

Generation X (born 1965-’80) sings a different tune. They believe in thinking globally and acting locally. They value diversity. They are self-reliant (having been latch-key kids), entrepreneurial, and pragmatic. They seek a work-life balance, and as a group, they are highly educated. They and the generations before them value duty, family, and integrity above social justice and authenticity.


Millennials (born 1981-1995) are a huge generation–about 95 million strong–and the first to be technologically fluent, having grown up in the era of personal computing. They value authenticity, happiness, diversity, sharing, and discovery. They want corporations and other organizations to put their money where their mouth is and are loyal to brands that align with their values.

Gen Z

Generation Z (born 1996-2019) includes the up-and-comers. These folks are young and idealistic, but also put their ideals into action. One trend that differentiates Gen Zers from Millennials is how they define gender and beauty – both are more fluid. Gen Z is also more comfortable talking about mental health and they are all about instant gratification, which often comes in the form of convenience. Gen Z is values-based and action-oriented. Be aware that they have short attention spans, so if you want their attention, you have to make it worth their while quickly or they’ll move on.

Emotional Connection

So, as we try to answer the questions of who do you want to reach and what do you want them to do as a result, consider using a values-based approach. Tell a story that matters. If I am your audience, show me how you can help me align my actions with my values by joining with you and I will be yours forever. Regardless of who you’re talking to, remember we are all connected by universal human truths. We all want to belong, to be accepted, to feel safe and to feel an affinity for those aligned with our values.