“Know your audience” is a key mantra of people who do what I do for a living. Communication professors and coaches know that value of having presenters reflect on the needs of their audience, and we challenge those we teach and coach to target their message so that they meet these needs.
Unfortunately, after learning about the need to deliver a presentation, most speakers start by thinking “here’s what I need to tell my audience.” And then they proceed to develop and ultimately deliver their thoughts and ideas. I’d like to suggest that this approach often leaves your audience unfulfilled and lacking in key concepts. For when you prepare a presentation from your perspective, you likely pass over critical bits of information and fail to pull your audience into the content. Others label this self-focused approach “the curse of knowledge.” Simply put, you often know too much about what you present.
A better, more thorough approach would be to begin by asking the question: What does my audience need to hear? While this approach initially sounds similar to “here’s what I need to tell my audience,” the difference is more than verbal jujitsu. By embracing an audience-focused approach, you will not only engage your audience more – since you’re giving them what they need, but you will present content that scaffolds their knowledge so that they can truly appreciate and understand your message.
This audience-centric approach requires you to truly know your audience. Thus, it really boils down to conducting detailed reconnaissance. You need to spend time figuring out exactly who your audience is and what value you can provide to them.
Ask yourself the following three questions to help you better determine your audience’s needs and then adjust your content to best suit these needs:
(1) What knowledge and/or past experience(s) have my audience had with my topic?
If your audience knows about your topic, you can begin at a much different place than if they are new to it. Often, you have an audience whose knowledge of your topic varies. In this case, start by notifying your audience that you will take a few minutes at the beginning of your presentation to scaffold the knowledge of those less “in the know” and then you will continue. This approach motivates the neophytes and prepares the more knowing members of your audience that their turn will be coming soon.
(2) What attitudes and emotions is my audience likely to have toward my topic?
Supportive and excited audiences afford you the opportunity to dive right in and share your thoughts. However, hesitant and resistant audiences require more care be spent initially to reduce their defensiveness. Rather than jump right into your arguments supporting your viewpoint, the best way to start with a skeptical audience is to acknowledge common ground. For example, it is often the case that resistant audiences agree with the overarching goal you are trying to achieve, but disagree on your means. By emphasizing the common goal or benefits, you can convert naysayers or at least make them more willing to listen.
(3) How proximal am I too my audience in terms of organizational status and influence?
The closer you are to your audience in terms of organizational status (e.g., you are their direct manager), the more concrete your message should be. Similarly, the more remote you are from your audience members (e.g., C-level presenting to line employees), the more abstract your content should be. Audiences prefer specifics when the presenter has more direct influence over them in day-to-day activities. If you find yourself in this situation, be sure to relay details (e.g., deliverables, deadlines, etc.) that are tied to individuals in your audience.
Your ultimate job as a presenter is to be in service of your audience. The only way you can achieve this goal is to understand your audience’s needs. By asking the three questions mentioned above and doing recon to figure out the answers, you will be able to better tailor your message to address your specific audience so they benefit more.