Five Generations Equal Five Preferred Communication Styles

August 21, 2019
By Michael Copp, Executive Vice President

Association executives are managing a diversity of members that extend across five very different generations (the same can be said of PHCC contractors and their employees). The following table shares some characteristics of each generation and what they expect when they join an association. In particular, I was fascinated by the preferred communication style for each generation shown below.

  Silents2 Baby Boomers1 Generation X1 Generation Y1
Generation Z2
Born 1925-1946 1946-1964 1965-1981 1982-1995 1996-2009
Size 20 Million 78 million 48 million 80 million 1 in 5 Employees by 2027
Characteristics “Dedicated, loyal, teamwork” “Hardworking, loyal, confident, cynical, competitive” “Anti-authority, highly individualistic, self-reliant, family focused” “Confident, digital thinkers, sense of entitlement, needy” “Value authenticity and ‘realness’."
Why they are the way they are “Wartime generation” “Wealthiest, healthiest, raised to pursue the American Dream” “Children of workaholics, arrival of cable television and computers, raised to be self-reliant” “Micro-managed by parents, technology, always rewarded for participation. Raised to be high achievers” “Never lived without the internet.” “Grew up in the Great Recession. They watched their parents struggle with finances that were seemingly stable just months before. They worry about the economy and are willing to work hard for a living.”3
Communication Styles “Print media” “Prefer detailed dialogue, in-person, phone, meetings.” “Prefer close, concise communications, no clichés or corporate jargon. Prefer email.” “Prefer frequent feedback and problem-solving via technology instead of phone calls or meetings.” “Social media and virtual networking sites. Online communities.”
What they want from and association “Opportunities to give back to communities and share wisdom”5 “Opportunities to lead and leave a legacy.” “Opportunities to further their careers and foster relationships with their peers.” “Opportunities to learn from mentors and gain access to new skills and information.” “They want to have an impact on society. They want to advance and grow professionally, and as a result, they’re willing to take on internships and other professional development opportunities.”3

As shown in the graphic below, if you consider that most associations are governed and supported by the “baby boomer” generation1, then one can see the difficult choices that have to be made in developing blended communications that are valued across generations. For those who have transitioned from printed to digital magazines in order to appeal to younger generations, Early Adopters and Innovators (and to save production costs), may have unintentionally caused a greater sense of disenfranchisement and decreased membership value for the “silents” and the “baby boomers” (Adapters and Late Majorities); who still value printed content. Conversely, printed content may be seen as “old school” by Generation Ys and Zs: (Early Majorities, Early Adopters and Innovators) who might then overlay that general perception upon the association and decide that is not for them. There is value in utilizing a broad range of communication modes to maintain member satisfaction based on their individual communications styles and how they consume and share information across generations. The ultimate goal is to continuously move the “member segmentation curve”4 to the right.

Identifying preferred intelligences of audiences

Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders (1998) in their book, Ten Steps to a Learning Organization, talk about humans having seven different intelligences: visual and spatial, bodily and kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, linguistic, and logical and mathematical. In addition, effective communicators learn to read queues in identifying preferred intelligences of their audience to maximize understanding between the sender and receiver of information. This is called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Roy Yarbrough (1994) explains that NLP suggests that people talk to themselves differently when synthesizing information. They take in data through auditory, visual and kinesthetic methods. They also give others clues as to how they prefer to receive data through their vocal responses. For example:

  • Auditory people might say…”I hear what you are saying. Tell me again why you believe we should take this approach?”
  • Visual people might say… “I see what you are saying. Show me again why you believe we should take this approach.”
  • Kinesthetic people might say… “I feel like I understand where you are coming from. Let’s talk about how you feel about taking this approach.”

Fun Fact — The neuro-linguistic theory also suggests there are eye-accessing clues that indicate how a person is recalling information:

  • Vr- Visual Remembered. Looking up and to the left indicates remembering and event or image which occurred in the past.
  • Vc- Visual Constructed. Looking up and to the right indicates thinking of an event or image, which has not yet taken place. (This is sometimes construed as lying)
  • Ar- Auditory Remembered. Looking to our left at eye level indicates that we are remembering a sound, word, phrase or other auditory event which has actually take place.
  • Ac- Auditory Constructed. Looking to our right at eye level indicates that we are trying to imagine a sound, phrase, word or other auditory event, which we have not actually heard before.
  • Ai- Auditory Internal. Looking to our lower left indicates when we are in the process of conducting a conversation within ourselves. This may be an internal debate, weighing options or evaluating a statement.
  • K- Kinesthetic. Looking to our lower right indicates that we are experiencing a strong emotion or feeling about what is being said or done.

Left dominant people reverse the cues described above. All descriptions are from the perspective of the other person. (Yarbrough, Roy. Class notes: “Neuro-Linguistic Theory,” Webster University: St. Louis, MO, Fall, 1994)



1 Sarah Sladek and Barb Ernster (2015), Engaging Young Generations, Understanding membership engagement trends in order to recruit, retain and sustain Generation X and Y.  XYZ University,

2 Calli Dretke (2017), Engaging the 5 Generations of Association Membership. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 24, 2019 at

3 Callie Walker (2016), Generation Z and Associations: What You Need to Know, Retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 25, 2019 at

4 Seth Godin (2003), Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, (1st ed.) The Penguin Group, New York, NY, page 6.

5 Piet Levy (2011), Don’t Leave the Elderly Out of Your Marketing, Plan, Retrieved from the World Wide Web on August 20, 2019 at

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