Who Is Your Audience? – It’s Always Bigger Than You Count On; It’s Practically Universal

Way, way back in my graduate school days, we studied the work of Chaïm Perelman (and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca).  They wrote the book The New Rhetoric (my copy is buried in storage).  Perelman developed this idea of a “universal audience.”  To oversimplify, he argued that every communication moment, every attempt at persuasion, had two audiences – the particular, immediate audience, and then a larger, more “universal” audience.  The size, the make-up of this universal audience was tough to define, but the idea leads to this simple underlying concept:  what you say in one place, to one specific, particular audience, will be heard, and interpreted, (and misinterpreted) in many more places.  And when that happens, people will evaluate you, and your message, in ways that you never quite intended or expected.

I think back to this idea frequently as I read about difficulties in this “information spreads far and wide” society that we now live in.  This morning, there is an article on Slate.com by the always helpful Farhad Manjoo, Didn’t Mean for You To See That, Grandma: Things you post on Facebook have a way of reaching more people than you want. Now the site has a solution. The article addresses Facebook’s new attempt at a solution for the new world problem:  someone puts a photo up for his or her “friends,” and then a parent, or a future boss, finds it.

And, there are more than a few stories about political figures saying something to one person/group, and the audio or video is picked up, and the world hears it.

In other words, there are basically no “closed audiences” any more.  You cannot guarantee control of your audience.  Or, consider it this way.  “What you say in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.”

Here are a couple of observations:

#1 – Always assume that what you say to one audience, even an audience of one, will be heard by a much, much larger audience. So, be intentional, be thoughtful, be a grown-up…be careful.

#2 – This can be good news. Sure, you can say something that will hurt you  But you can also say things, do things, that when spread far and wide, the larger audience thinks more highly of you.

It’s the new world.  What you say to one audience will most likely be heard by a much larger audience.  Remember that every audience can be bigger than you ever imagined – remember your universal audience.

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