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Speaking with the Audience in Mind

March 11, 2020
As a presenter, it’s not only about what you want to say – it’s also knowing what your audience wants to hear.

How do you prepare to speak in front of an audience? If you’re like most people, you start by compiling the content you will use in your presentation, including any statistics, testimonials and other research items that will support the theme of your talk and allow you to utilize — without exceeding — the time that has been allotted to you.

Part of the pre-speech preparation will also include establishing a theme or a message that you hope to convey in your presentation. This could be initiated by your host, who has invited you to speak, something along the lines of, “Jim, we’d like you to give a talk on how to install kitchen cabinets.” Or the theme could be determined by you and based on an area of expertise that you want to share with your audience.

In either case, an often-overlooked consideration in preparing to give a speech or presentation is the audience: What do they want to hear you talk about? Sometimes as speakers, we understandably get consumed with the information we have, our passion on the topic and the message we want the audience to hear. As a result, we drown the audience in too much detail or get lost in delivering our message without knowing or understanding if our message matters to the audience.

You see this happen frequently in technical trainings in business. Having worked in the electrical industry for more than 30 years, I have seen my fair share of blank stares and yawns coming from an audience drowning in unnecessary information. For example, I once put together a technical training for a group of salespeople on a very sophisticated component that interfaces with electric motors and automation equipment. The purpose, in my mind, was to help the salespeople become comfortable in recognizing applications where this product could be used and reasonably conversant on the features and benefits a company would get by using it on their equipment.

Since I am not an expert on the product and had only marginally more knowledge of the product than those I was seeking to train, I arranged for an industry icon, in fact the person who is recognized as being “the father” of this technology, to come and train the salespeople. Great idea, you might say. What could go wrong?

Everything. Instead of a conversational discussion on what to look for and how to identify opportunities, my expert gave a two-hour, slide-filled, extremely technical presentation that he had previously used to train a group of electrical engineers. How could this have happened?

To begin with, I did a terrible job of properly explaining the expectations that I had for this audience — specifically to come out of this presentation being conversant and comfortable talking about the product. Second, I overestimated the need for a person with his level of expertise in this training and, as a result, put him in a no-win situation, thus wasting his valuable time and effort that day.

One thing I could have done was ask to meet with him two weeks prior to the event to review an outline of what he was going to cover in the meeting. By doing this, I would have seen that his presentation was filled with heavy electrical engineering concepts and vocabulary. Because his presentation did not match what my audience wanted to hear, rather than gaining confidence, the audience fell into a boredom-laced, death-by-PowerPoint trance.

The lesson I learned that day was that I did not consider what the audience wanted to hear. Had I done that, I could have secured a more sales-oriented “expert” with strong technical knowledge and an even stronger selling personality who could connect with and motivate the sales team. Unfortunately, I put my theme and message ahead of what was best for the audience.

Neglecting the audience’s expectations is not exclusive to the business world. In my travels, I have attended a wide range of political, charitable or church-related events where the speaker came to deliver a message without thinking beforehand if their message mattered to the audience.

Recently, I attended a rally at our state capitol building, where a series of speakers came to the podium to speak about one of the most debated issues in American politics. With a large like-minded crowd in attendance, you would think that every speaker that day would be able to come to the microphone and knock it out of the park. However, it was clear by the audience reaction that several of the speakers had missed the mark that day either by giving bland, cookie-cutter speeches or by detouring from the issue at hand to talk about completely different socio-political issues that were not related to the rally. By overestimating the value of their message and allowing their passion and determination to share what they wanted to speak to, not what the audience wanted to hear, the audience was left confused and disconnected after the speaker left the stage.

The failure to connect with an audience is frequently the result of lack of consideration for what is important to the audience and what they want to hear. One of the things I try to do when preparing a talk is to envision what the audience will be talking about after the program is over when they are on their way home. Then, I work on how I can construct my speech so that my audience cares to contemplate it long after the microphone is turned off.

So how do you find out what they audience wants to hear? Ask them. But realizing that it’s virtually impossible to ask every member of an audience what they want to hear weeks in advance of appearing before them, your best option is to ask your host the following four questions:

1. What do you think your audience would most benefit from hearing/learning from in my presentation?

2. Do you have any examples of previous talks that hit the mark for the audience?

3. Do you have any examples of talks that failed, and why they failed?

4. Are there any subjects that you think I should avoid, and if so, why?

You may also want to consider factors such as the audience’s average age, experience level, gender mix, possibility of other speakers, order of speakers, or key members who you might speak with prior to the event.

Combining information about the audience with expertise and passion for the subject matter is a great formula for successful presentations. A speech or presentation prepared this way will enable you to give the audience what they want to hear as you tell them what you want to say.

Mark Serafino retired after spending more than 30 years with OmniCable. He currently resides in the St. Louis area and can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Mark Serafino

Mark Serafino spent more than three decades working in wholesale distribution, most recently as a senior sales executive with OmniCable.. After retiring, he formed Strictly Speaking LLC. coaching and mentoring individuals and groups in personal communications and leadership and management skills. [email protected]

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