Successful teachers have a tool kit full of strategies they can tailor to different students, depending, among other variables, on a student’s aptitude, age, background knowledge, and interest in the subject matter. Effective teachers use a variety of both successful and unsuccessful past experiences, observations, and training to choose the best way to communicate their knowledge. I learned this lesson on a Fulbright grant, teaching English to 1,500 13 to 19 year-olds in a rural Malaysian high school. Each day, (crucial directions to get to work included “turn left at the mango tree” and “watch out for cow crossings on Jalan Secondary School”), I would arrive at school prepared for both lesson plans and extracurriculars, and for me to be called on to give a surprise school-wide speech or guest teach a class I had never met before.
While there, my personal teacher tool kit contained a variety of methods, from filing through my mental Rolodex of synonyms and connecting concepts to my students’ various native languages of Bahasa Malaysia, Lundaya, Dusun, or Murut (sometimes English was their third or fourth language!), and culture to embarrassing displays of low-grade acting levels, lots of laughter, and whiteboard art.
The same tool kit metaphor can be applied for marketing and communications professionals. Crucial umbrella skills for communicating with clients are the same broad skill sets that teachers mine to communicate with their students. The most important of these general principles include:
Meet your client where they are and try to bring them with you to a place of understanding. Clients may not at first understand your strategies, media insights, or bigger picture tie-ins. My students often used English words and phrases in a uniquely Malaysian way that took me a while to figure out and use. (For example, “following someone home” means they are giving you a ride.) Similarly, clients may be invested in their own ideas and approach. Investing time to fully understand to what current methods they are deeply attached and why will help you to better get their buy-in on your ideas and ultimately plan your PR program.
Consider different ways to explain the same concept. Sometimes I would say one thing in class, but my students would hear another and I would have to act out game instructions or draw examples of grammar concepts on my trusty whiteboard. Similarly, sometimes a client’s view on an idea is due to a misunderstanding. Slight changes in word choice or differences in angles with which to explain your concept can help enormously. Think about the messaging and tone already used by the client and aim to match that style where possible.
Make your client feel at ease. Comfort begets trust. When my students became more comfortable sharing their individual fears around making English mistakes, our increased levels of trust let us work together to overcome them. When clients can openly share their challenges, obstacles to smooth communication are more efficiently addressed. Showing you already speak their language – whether that be a personal communication style or overall industry insight – is an essential skill for a strong partnership.
Just as effective teachers are in tune with their students and use specific and pointed strategies depending on who they are teaching and which ideas they are trying to impart upon their students, marketing and communications professionals should develop a diverse set of strategies tailored to different types of clients. This diversity of skills will serve them well in successfully communicating their ideas to clients in our ever-evolving industry.