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Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash


Reading time: 7 minutes

Your audience is smart, let them feel that

Ensuring your audience feels understood so that they engage

You enjoy feeling smart right? We all like to feel smart, it makes you feel good about yourself, and about what you’ve done so far. That feeling has allowed you to get further than you thought. Feeling dumb isn’t great, you feel a sense of helplessness, embarrassment and probably fear, essentially the fear of the unknown, because you don’t know.

We want our audience to feel smart, we don’t want to make or let them know they are smart but to feel it. Saying to you that you are smart is nice, but it lacks value. I haven’t given you a way to prove that you are smart and you’ve also not had a way to show me that you are. It’s simply a statement.

But if I were to interact with you, share a story, give you a challenge and you come out having learned something, whether you were successful or not. Well, then that was a way of letting you feel smart.

This isn’t some method of how to manipulate your audience. This is a method of letting your audience know that you understand them. If you’ve given your audience a way to feel smart, it also means that you’ve understood them. Each person is different, but each person can be challenged, can learn, and can achieve something, and in that, they don’t feel alone anymore.

When crafting or reviewing your experience, it is very important that you allow your audience to feel smart. The emotions and the motivational levers connected to those emotions are so powerful, that they can sometimes mean the difference between a loyal following and an alienated group of strangers.

Emotions & motivations

When your audience feels smart and understood, you will tap into their intrinsic engagement. You won’t need extrinsic motivational levers like rewards, people will want to come back because it feels good. But having some extrinsic stuff won’t hurt either though. Your audience still loves getting stuff for being good and smart with what they’ve done. It can only help to improve their positive feelings.

The positive feelings and emotions that you want to tap into and that you want your audience to associate with your experience are:

  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Pride
  • Trust
  • And Confidence

When you manage to hit these few, and some other positive ones as well, then you’re managing to reach the majority of a person’s motivational levers:

  • Belonging
  • Mastery
  • Autonomy
  • Esteem

And if you’re sharing a story with your audience, interacting with them on a personal level, then you’ll likely also tap into Purpose and Safety. With that, you’ve hit all the main motivators a person has wanting to take part in your experience.

All this from simply letting your audience feel smart and understood.

On the flip side, if you intentionally or accidentally let your audience feel dumb, well then, we get emotions like:

  • Anger
  • Distrust
  • Sadness
  • And Fear

With these emotions, their motivations will shift to distancing themselves from the experience. As it has left them with a feeling of humiliation, which leads to a lack of confidence in their abilities and intelligence and has the eventual outcome of being alienated and never returning.

These are all very strong descriptors, but the sensations that are evoked in people are born from them. Therefore, you must use the right tools to make sure you achieve positive outcomes for your audience.

Tools & Mechanics

There are a variety of tools and mechanics that you can use to engage your audience and give them that feeling of being smart. But it’s not enough to have the right engagement tools and mechanics, you also need to use them at the right moment.

One of the best moments in the audience’s journey through your experience is in the Instructional Scaffolding stage of their journey. Every audience goes through a journey, and this journey generally has six stages:

  1. Discovery
  2. Acquisition
  3. Onboarding
  4. Instructional Scaffolding
  5. Mastery/Adept
  6. Endgame

Naturally, you want them to feel smart at each stage, but stage 4 will have the longest-lasting impact on your audience and have the greatest value for you and them in this case.

When they enter the instructional scaffolding stage, your audience will be within what is known as the zone of proximal development. They’ll likely have learned a variety of things through the previous stages, and been pushed a little, but not too much. But in stage 4 you will need to push them beyond this zone, outside of their comfort zone. You must challenge them and help them expand their knowledge and confidence. Once they do the challenge, successful or not, the outcome will be that they have a sense of pride, and achievement and they will feel smarter for it.

The engagement mechanics that you can use are taken from gamification, marketing and behaviourism. Use mechanics such as narrative to create a bond with your audience and relay a story of your own that helps you connect with them. As your audience goes through the experience, offer tips and small exercises and challenges to help cement some early knowledge in them. Tutorial-like challenges that support them on their journey. These can be breadcrumb-style educational points, that take them from one aspect to the next, a clear path to follow. And eventually, have them achieve a few milestones that lead to small steppingstone stretch goals that test them.

The final step can be a boss-battle type challenge, where the training wheels have been removed, and the are truly pushed. Requiring all of their previously gathered knowledge to rise to the challenge and succeed or fail, learn, and try again.

These are just a few examples of the type of mechanics that you can employ to push them, and eventually, have them be like the tiny baby bird that leaps (or gets pushed) out of its nest and learns to successfully fly on its own.

Success & failure

Your audience will succeed and fail. It’s inevitable. But you need to make sure that both success and failure are positive things for your audience. Success naturally feels good, who doesn’t like to win? But failure doesn’t feel great, and we’ve all been taught at some point, by someone, that failure is bad. Failure doesn’t need to be bad; failure is the stretch. If your audience is failing, then their stretching, learning, becoming better, becoming smarter, until finally they succeed and move on to the next stretch.

Frame success and failure as part of the same thing. Make the success epic and the failure epic, and make it clear what they are learning.

It is a delicate balance to achieve between success and failure and having your audience feel smart so that they continue to be intrinsically motivated. And it won’t always work with everyone, each person’s different and for that person, it might just not be what they are into, at that moment. But hopefully, the experience up to that point is enough to maybe give them a nudge to step out of their comfort zone and still give it a go, and benefit from it.

Final thoughts

Making your audience feel understood and smart is an exercise in trying to understand what it’s like to be in your audience’s place, to walk a kilometre or mile in their shoes. And that isn’t easy, and it might be somewhat impossible depending on your own life and experiences. But making the effort to try to understand is already worth a lot. I wouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like to have a physical disability, but I can talk to and listen to people who do, and learn from that, and maybe with that knowledge help an audience like them to feel understood and craft an experience that lets them feel good about themselves and smarter for it.

And what that illustrates is that you need to be honest, transparent and authentic. Don’t make things up, or pretend to know, just so that it sounds like you understand. It’ll come across as disingenuous and people who know will spot you as a fraud within seconds.

Do the work to understand your audience. And when your audience feels understood and feels smart, you will have such an incredibly loyal and engaged following, because likely, you’re just like them.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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