Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald: Know your audience

In veterinary medicine, as in comedy, it's important to tailor your message to each individual audience.
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Dec 04, 2009

For nearly 25 years, I’ve done stand-up comedy as a hobby. I’ve always said that veterinary medicine is a harsh mistress and that veterinarians need a hobby. Something that is not like their work at all. Something that is stimulating and different. Something that is just “theirs”. For me, stand-up is fun, it is challenging, and no one is dying but me. The other night, while watching a local comic perform before a live audience, I realized just how much practicing veterinary medicine is like stand-up comedy.

That night the young comic who was on stage badly misjudged his audience. The event was a retirement dinner for a local educator. The crowd was older—his peers, fellow teachers, and contemporaries (many of whom had already retired) were out in full force. The average age of the group was probably in the upper 50s. They also were fairly conservatively dressed as you would expect of such a congregation. Rather than offering the group topics they could relate to, the young fellow quipped about current bands and joked with obscure references to recent movies that none of these people had ever seen. The crowd sat quietly, politely, and staring sedately as he tried his strongest punchlines. They did not mean to appear unappreciative, glum, or mean-spirited, but he might just as well have been speaking Greek to them.

What was the problem? He didn’t know his audience. He didn’t give them cultural references or material that was specific and appropriate for them. He didn’t connect with them. He didn’t listen to their laughter—or lack of it—and adjust his act accordingly. It’s a pretty good bet that a 60-year-old woman doesn’t know who “The Black-Eyed Peas” are, but she may laugh at an Elvis joke or a humorous arthritis anecdote. In comedy there are only three rules: Know your audience, be flexible and find what works, and never blame the audience for not laughing. You have to earn it.

I think that there are tremendous similarities between a comedy audience and our veterinary clients. Do we know our audience? Do we always make an attempt to connect with them, to communicate with them on an appropriate level and in a fashion that they can understand? Are we flexible? Can we take more time to explain our suspicions about a case or our treatment protocol to an older person with no formal science training or to people with very little formal education? We have to be sensitive and observant. We have to know our crowd and find the right way to connect with them. We have to avoid a set “spiel” or a “schtick” and communicate with clients in a straightforward, respectable way that is appropriate for their background. We have to find the easiest and the best way for them to understand us. What works best for one person may totally miss the mark for another. Take the time to find the common ground. You won’t be sorry.

Know your audience. Listen to yourself. Think before you speak and avoid “pat” or “stock” spiels. By connecting with clients as early as possible and by knowing your audience, you will be much more successful establishing an effective treatment protocol. I am not suggesting you enter the exam room with a fake arrow through your head or a clown nose, but we can take a valuable lesson from stand-up comedy and knowing our audience. I promise that one of these times my column will be all jokes!

See you next week, Kev