Don’t Make a Donkey Out Of You (U) and Me, Or Never Assume You Know Your Audience

This weekend The Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Affluent Seniors are Ready, Willing and Able to Sacrifice for the Country: Just Ask Us.” The article reminded me of something Robert Seigel (yes, THAT Robert Seigel — the one from NPR) once told me.

You see, many (many) years ago when I was young, I had the opportunity to work for National Public Radio. I was a government relations associate, working on telecommunications policy issues. While riding in the elevator one day, I happened upon an older man whom I did not recognize. In radio you often don’t know the “talent,” as we call them, by sight. So we were chatting about me being new to NPR and my role there. The end of our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Well, all-in-all I assume the new leadership will take a long time to get going on their legislative agenda.”

My new friend: “You know the etymology of the word “assume,” right? when you assume, you make an ass out of you (u) and me.”

Me (in a somewhat smart-alecky manner): “Who uses a word like “etymology” in every day conversation?”

My new friend: “I’m Robert Seigel” — just exactly like he says it on Morning Edition.

Needless to say I was a little mortified (he was very gracious), but nevertheless I learned two important things from that conversation: number one, know who the heck you’re talking to and number two, never assume.

If you read the Op-Ed noted above, you’ll see the writer makes the later point. Everyone assumes that all seniors oppose cuts to any programs from which they might benefit. This simply isn’t true. In any influence situation we should never build our strategy based on the supposition that people will respond as we believe they might or should. We need REAL information about our audience, not just what makes the most sense in terms of their direct self-interest. Who knows? They might surprise you.

Oh, and the other lesson from this incident? When you’re in an elevator with someone you don’t know, don’t be a smart-aleck.


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