Intergenerational Communication: How to Communicate Effectively across Generations

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Marketers and media specialists often rely on the notion of generations as a rudimentary, sometimes humorous way to define and describe different age groups within cultural, political, and economic contexts. But the stereotypes used to define these groups – from Silver Surfers to Zoomers – can lead to a toxic divisiveness that leaves audiences feeling at odds with one another. Tailoring our communication to address all generations may be a way out.

Debbie is a Canadian copywriter and translator based in Berlin, Germany. She is fascinated by etymology and loves to learn new languages.

Copywriting for any audience always requires some preliminary groundwork. First, we need to know precisely whom we are addressing. Then we define the target group, get to know the people within that group and try to understand their values, needs, and the best channels through which to reach them. In doing so, audiences can be broken down in endless ways: by gender, by educational level, by religion. One common way to narrow down a target is to segment audiences into generations.

The popular press and media love to define, name and characterise generational cohorts. They are given catchy names, with Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z or “Zoomers” recently in the spotlight. With so many brands vying for market share and attention, marketers are also concerned with finding the right way to appeal to these groups. It’s no wonder that these days, it seems as if we live in a very divided world, not least because we have been embroiled in the so-called “generation wars” for quite some time.

Generational differences have long been exploited by advertisers and the media in order to sell products and services, creating fault lines that fracture our society. But the explosive growth of social media and the mobile economy may have made these divisions more toxic, as one group is pitted against another. Along the way, “Boomer” has become an outright insult, while Millennials and Gen Z are portrayed as rivals in a highly visible culture war played out on the Internet.

If we take a step back and consider how segmentation tends to oversimplify the narratives behind our definitions of these generational groups, we may begin to question whether it is always the best strategy to categorise people in this way. On the one hand, narrowly defining a target group by age allows us to adapt our style, tone of voice, and use nuanced language to closely tailor our approach. But the more we adapt our style to target individual groups, the more fragmented our communication becomes. As a result, we may come across as insincere in that we change the way we speak every time we attempt to address a different group. So what is the best way to effectively address all generations at once? Is there a risk that our content will then come across as generic and murky? How can we reach everyone instead of failing to reach anyone?

Universal truths across all generations

We can begin by examining what we all have in common as human beings rather than what makes us different. For one thing, we all seek connection. The need for others, the need to share, to understand and help each other – all of these are universal. We don’t all have the same sense of humour, but we all need to laugh, just as we don’t all like the same food, but we all need to eat. Other universal needs that come to mind are acceptance, family, friends, and to feel protected, loved, valued, esteemed, heard and respected.

When we take a look at what makes us human, we may discover that in many ways, there is more that unites us than divides us. Communicating from the perspective of our common humanity could help us to approach a broader public more intuitively.

Be a great listener

Sometimes the key to creating great content is simply to focus on listening rather than writing. The observations, opinions and perspectives of our audience matter a lot. Generational groups often express different viewpoints, but if we search for a common thread, we may again be surprised by the similarities we discover. Listening is an important step in establishing any relationship. We can gather valuable information to develop a content strategy just by being there with a mindful presence and lending a good ear. This leads us to the next step:

Be responsive

React to what the audience has to say – let them know they have been heard. Once we have taken their pulse and read their emotions, we can then try to address their specific concerns. The aim is to achieve the right balance between what we want to say and what they want to know. This can be done by basing our communication on a feedback and response cycle, rather than taking a linear approach to developing content. Keeping in touch with the audience through frequent and regular communication will allow us to stay connected and maintain a strong relationship over time.

Respect the audience

No one likes being duped. With the proliferation of fake news, online scams and dubious user-generated content, it can be more or less difficult for audiences of different generations to know whether they can trust what they are reading. While young people have a particularly finely tuned bullshit detector, that doesn’t mean they are the only ones deserving of an honest, open and straightforward approach. All generations deserve respect. The best way to ensure this is to adhere to a certain standard and maintain a consistent voice. Specifically, we need to pay close attention to quality, consistency and authenticity when creating content. By doing so, we can establish a stable, reliable presence and build a relationship with our audience over time.

Forgo generation-specific slang…

Is it “bro” or “bruh”? Fuggedaboudit! Every generation likes to stand out with its own vernacular. Using any of it will alienate at least part of your audience. So steer clear of words that are strongly associated with any individual age group or demographic. Instead, focus on great storytelling in accessible, straightforward language and allow the content rather than the style to take centre stage.

…but incorporate generational insights

All generations can learn from each other. This is why we may also want to consider addressing subgroups within the same communication. We can do this by addressing individual subsets of people within the audience with specific messages while allowing other groups to share in the communication as observers. In this way, we can even bring various age groups closer by pooling their experiences.

What is also important is to roll with the times and not stay mired in the past. This is where we can actually take a lesson or two from Gen Zers, who as a group are said to be more diverse and better educated than the generations before them. Furthermore, as the first generation of digital natives, they have very high standards in terms of transparency, inclusivity, ethical consumption and accountability. These are all areas that reflect our progress as a society, and as such they deserve more attention.

And let’s keep in mind that there are many more ways to appeal to readers other than to address them by generation:

  • Demonstrate knowledge in your area of expertise – speak about what you know best
  • Deconstruct fallacies in order to create solidarity instead of division
  • Demonstrate your values clearly so that your target knows what you stand for
  • Engage the audience with your character and leverage it to stand out with your message

Generational segmentation is by definition divisive. As humans, there is so much we can do to understand and communicate with each other at a universal level. Intergenerational communication is therefore a valid approach that may be more suitable in certain cases than playing up to any individual group and attempting to win them over. Because unless we can convincingly speak their language, we may risk coming across as inauthentic. And there’s also a lot to be said for bringing people together instead of dividing them.