Talking to the generations

By Sue Voyles / August 20, 2021 / , ,

Many of us believe we know about the various generations of people around us. Certainly, they have all been labelled in recent years by social scientists.

Understanding different age groups is critical to making good decisions and choices when it comes to communicating and marketing your brand.

Learning the differences in generations

Notre Dame of Maryland University released an interesting document they titled, “The Evolution of Communication Across Generations.” The information describing the generations of our current time is well-known by all. What I liked were the ideas about communicating across these generational boundaries.

The generations are known collectively as “Generation Z,” “Millennials,” “Generation X,” and “Baby Boomers.” All of these age groups interface in the workplace, in cultural experiences and sometimes have a powerful impact on each other’s outlooks. They all have different expectations and preferences when it comes to communicating in terms of style, speed and what is presented.

Much of what I share now is taken from the Notre Dame of Maryland University report and references it cites to other interesting studies on this communications topic.

Generation Z – those born after 1997 – makes up what the study says are the first “digital natives” They communicate more online than in person, accord to some studies and expect super-fast response speeds from the internet, information sources and whoever is trying to message them in some fashion. One HR study, however, said this group reacts well to face-to-face communications in the workplace.

Millennials (born between 1981-1996) grew up at the dawn of the digital age and many are digital natives as well. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 92% of millennials own smartphones and have taken to messaging others through apps on smartphones, as opposed to calling over the phone. Another study found that millennials also often avoid face-to-face interactions in the workplace and prefer email, texts and remote contacts.

Members of Generation X (1965-1980) are the first of these generation groups to incorporate digital technology in their lives, which affected their communication preferences as they grew into adulthood. For example, a study from systems integration firm NTT Data confirmed that email is this generation’s preferred form of communication at home or work. Often this group is called a “bridge” between future generations of workers and those facing retirement, such as Baby Boomers.

Finally, Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) grew up in a time before smartphones, computers, texting, social media, and even cable television. Information was shared through radio, newspapers, a handful of TV channels, and by using the telephone or even writing a letter.

Having seen so much change this group has had to adapt the most and become proficient in all forms of technology and communications. According to many studies, the Baby Boomers are comfortable with this changing landscape, but also still enjoy face-to-face communications.

Adapting to these generational differences

While I cannot claim the specifics of what the Notre Dame of Maryland University report suggests, my experience tells me these are sound ideas for anyone wanting to figure out how best to reach these diverse audiences. To effectively communicate your message across multiple generations, the study offers three core ideas. To quote them:

Consider Your Audience: Because of each generation’s unique communication style, employees need to tailor their conversations with their co-workers, bosses or subordinates. For example, a meeting with a baby boomer boss may call for a more formal tone, while a conversation with a Gen Z or millennial coworker could be more relaxed.

Individualize: Even though we are talking about generational stereotypes, not everybody lives up to them. It’s necessary to understand the best communication style for your co-workers, bosses or subordinates. Then, you can individualize your communication with them.

Teach and Learn: One of the keys to better intergenerational communication is a willingness to teach and learn. Because all generations differ in their preferences, there will come a time when each will have to use a less familiar method.

How do you communicate with different generations?

Look at these points closely: 1) focus on your audience framed by your knowledge of what styles they use to send and receive information; 2) connect in a personal, individual way; and 3) be willing to learn, change and adapt, as well as teach.

From my perspective, being flexible and willing to adapt your styles remains the most critical aspect to successfully communicating your message to the various generations.

It is critical, however, that you avoid watering down your core brand message.

For example, automotive companies adapt their advertising approach depending on the audience they think is viewing the material, whether online, television or in a printed publication. They certainly don’t change the heart of who they are as a company. A firm like Ford will stand by its brand no matter what, even if the outwardly facing message and delivery system differs from generation to generation.

It can be daunting to manage message creation and delivery to the wide range of customer types you have. The communication styles and technology that generations have become familiar with can be used to your advantage. Take the time to understand the audiences and implement tactics that drive home a consistent message, but in various styles and formats.

No matter what, though, don’t give up the core of who you are as a brand, or your mission or your business standards. Doing so will lead to failure because one thing these generations have in common is a fierce sense of what is authentic and real. Hypocrisy or insincerity will not work. It never did before these generations and it certainly won’t now.

That’s a multi-generational truth.