May 23, 2016 / in Comms Best Practices / by Jim Dougherty

We had a dinner party a few nights ago, and when talking about the entertainer Drake, our neighbors had a curious response: “Who’s Drake?”

My wife told them that Drake was a singer that dated Rihanna, another guest told them that Drake was the fellow that was dating Serena Williams during the Western and Southern Open last year, and I told them that Drake was the fellow who had issues with Meek Mill. Yet all of these (factually correct) descriptions were met with blank stares.

Although I think playing Drizzy-ignorant was a ruse, it highlights that we sometimes overestimate our shared experiences. Recently, a Pew Research Center study similarly concluded that far fewer people have experience in the digital economy than you might think. Consider the following:

  • What percentage of people (adults 18 and up) are familiar with crowdfunding?
  • What percentage of people have used a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft?

If you guessed 39 percent and 15 percent respectively, you are right. But then consider how prominently these are discussed.

To start a crowdfunding campaign, a principle starts from a point where 60 percent of potential donors may know nothing about the platforms they’re using or the mechanism underlying the platform.

Consider how frequently people discuss Uber despite so few people having the context of experiencing what it is and how it works. The perception of a person who has heard of Uber or Lyft and never used these services is far different than the 15 percent of people who have used the service.

What I want to do in this post is discuss five ways that we can communicate more effectively despite our overestimation of common experiences.

1. Words

One of the most shocking revelations from the Pew study is how few people understand the lexicon of the digital economy. If you mention the “gig economy” to generalize the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, nearly nine of 10 people won’t understand what you’re saying.

Conversely, if you mention “social media” in reference to anything other than Facebook, odds are that most of the people who hear you will be thinking of Facebook features even if you’re trying to communicate the capabilities of Instagram.

A lot of writing and speaking tips recommend avoiding “jargony” words, but we probably aren’t as adept at understanding the words that we use that people don’t understand, or that are possibly too broad to infer the meaning that we intend to convey.

So, a good practice is to identify these words and define them upfront (“A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements”), or to be more precise (i.e. “visual social media” or “Instagram”).

Unless people understand clearly what you’re talking about from the get-go, your communication is doomed.

2. Experience

The Pew study discusses the ways that customer perception of ride-share services is influenced by whether a person has used them in the past. If a person is familiar with ride-sharing but has never used one of the services, they are more apt to support tighter governmental regulation of these services than people who have used them. Further, whether a person has used the service impacts their viewpoint of whether Lyft or Uber is software or a transportation service.

One of the key insights from this study is that experience influences the way that we perceive a product or service. It may be important to understand whether a person is familiar with something but has an abstract understanding of it due to lack of familiarity. And it is possible that people with no experience with something may be more prone to be adversarial towards it.

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3. Media diversification

In 1953, the No. 1 television program on TV (“I Love Lucy”) averaged 68 percent of all households watching the show every week. In the 1980s, the No. 1 television program on TV (“The Cosby Show”) averaged 38 percent of all households. In the early 2000s, the No. 1 television program on TV (“CSI”) averaged 12 percent of all households. In 2016, the No. 1 television program on TV (“The Big Bang Theory”) averages 8.8 percent of all households. That last number is more complex than the others incidentally, as it includes online and device views.

I used these numbers to demonstrate that media consumption isn’t as universal of an experience as it was even 10 years ago. People have web video, YouTube, original programming on platforms like Netflix and Hulu, social media, increasingly sophisticated games and apps that are just as apt to consume our time as television… rather, they are far more likely to consume our time as television.

Of course this means that we don’t always share a common context, at least relative to the not-so-distant past. You can go around yelling “Bazinga!” if you like, but fewer than one out of 10 people may find it amusing (working hypothesis: far fewer).

So how do we overcome the divergence of our media exposure? A couple of thoughts: you can treat pop culture references as jargon and keep it out of your communication, or you can segment audiences by common interests. If you’re doing a lot of advertising on Facebook, segmenting by common Page Likes may be a way to accomplish this quite easily.

4. Peer Groups


One of the big takeaways from the Pew report is that exposure to the digital economy diminishes substantially for older respondents. And while age is a very clean way to interpret this, I think it’s a little dangerous to consider a number and not the peer-group context of the respondents. For example, Uber started in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC. All of these are some combination of not driver-friendly, very public-transportation friendly, with a large number of visitors. While a 50-year-old man in Cincinnati may not be familiar with Uber, a 50-year-old man in San Francisco probably has a higher likelihood of being familiar with and using the service.

In Stephen Wolfram’s study of Facebook profiles, one of the most interesting findings was how consistently people fall into peer groups. We don’t often deviate from our age group or from people who have similar values. My familiarity with crowdfunding may not be a function of my age; it may just be that no one that I know discusses it.

For local businesses, considering peer grouping rather than age segmentation and/or broad generalizations may be a useful way to qualify people that you (or your competitors) may have overlooked.

5. Contexts

Remember how everyone at our party discussed Drake? He (allegedly) dated Rihanna and Serena, he’s a rapper, he’s a child actor, a big fan of the Toronto Raptors…. in other words, you could know who Drake is but have a completely different understanding than somebody else.

Constructivist learning theory says that we learn by creating a connection between new information and knowledge that we already have.

So, how do we discuss Drake (or a concept as multi-faceted as Drake) that will be accessible to people with multiple understandings of what Drake does? Possibly by demonstrating the context that we want to present information in. In other words, when people have multiple understandings of a concept, we want to create a new connection between the context that they have and the context that we want them to understand.

For instance, perhaps I want to explain why Drake’s skit “Drake’s Beef” on “Saturday Night Live” was funny. I’d explain that he wrote this dis track “back to back” about a rival rapper, and that the skit implies that he may be prone to overreaction when he repeatedly creates dis tracks for members of the SNL cast. The idea is to create a new understanding from a person’s previous context.


Communicating is difficult. We don’t have as much common context as we did in the past, but even then it was inadequate for clear communication. Good communication will meet the recipient where they are and bring them to a common understanding of what you want to communicate.

Experience impacts perspective, and the language you use must be well understood. Hopefully the Pew study and this article give you some ideas of how you can identify problems and find solutions.

But more than anything, this is a post about Drake. How many ways we know him, yet we don’t know him at all…


Images via Pixabay: 1, 2

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.