Watching this year’s national election debates, I’ve been  particularly fascinated by the moderators on two fronts. First, there are the styles each has used, and second, there’s the uproar their performances trigger among the partisans on either side. (Those who know me well know I’m apolitical, so if your immediate response to that sentence is to castigate one of those moderators for treating your candidate shabbily, this blog’s comments section isn’t the place.)

They fascinate me because they serve a similar role to that of the copywriter. They have to defend the interests of the audience from those who wish to control both the message and its delivery. Regardless of their own personal beliefs about the matters at hand, to be truly effective, they have to operate with objectivity and continually ask themselves whether the ultimate audience is getting the information it wants.

I had this discussion recently with a corporate executive. He voiced his dissatisfaction with some elements of the company’s marketing, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why it fell short.

I pointed out that those materials did a great job of sharing everything the company and its executives were proud of. They knew every detail of the products and services they offered, and they were quick to point out where they excelled. But their ultimate audience — the people who would engage this firm’s professionals — didn’t care about any of those things. They had a different set of needs and questions. They wanted someone who could take a tough job off their proverbial plate. They wanted someone who could make them look as smart as they felt. They didn’t care about the engineering behind it. Instead of being developed with the audience in mind, the material had been created to broadcast what the executives thought was most important.

I lost a client recently because of a similar discussion. Sitting in a room with some of those storied C-level executives, I had the temerity to provide honest answers about their company’s website. I wasn’t simply offering my opinion; I was summarizing a dozen conversations I had with users of the site. The consensus among those users was that the site was useless and did nothing but trumpet the company’s belief in its own greatness. I agreed, so they stopped working with me and found someone else who was wise enough to defer to their beliefs.

A moderator or a copywriter can’t be effective in those roles unless they are willing to step back and objectively serve the needs of the audience. That will invariably put them in hot water among those whose egos and sense of self-worth lead them to lose sight of what really matters. But it’s well worth the risk.

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