May 14, 2009

What's your audience's culture?



Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking to the Santa Barbara Associates, an "old-boys' club for women" that was started almost 30 years ago as a place for women business owners and executives to network and socialize with like-minded members.

Before the speaking engagement, I exchanged several e-mails with the organizer, to discern what their interests were in regard to public speaking and to make sure I was able to view the room setup in advance. I was thrilled to be asked to present on one of my favorite topics: engaging the audience.

One thing you can ask about beforehand is the group culture. It helps to know if a group has a good sense of humor, if they're quiet or boisterous, if they're stodgy or laid-back. Meeting members of the group can help with this, but asking the question up front will give you a better answer.

Having not asked this question (oops), but having met several members of the group in advance, surveyed their website, and knowing the woman who recommended me (a fellow member of another networking group I'm in), I felt confident but not 100% sure about the group culture.

Lunch was served before my talk, so I had the opportunity to meet and converse with several more members of the group.

My opening involved a Barbie doll in a neon yellow animal-print ensemble from the 80s -- complete with shoulder pads. So far, so good! The women were engaged, asking questions, participating, and generally being a great audience.

But what really made my day and revealed a little more of the group's culture was when Calla, a jewelry designer and fellow networking group member, had the occasion to mention her "boobs." There wasn't a single embarrassed or disappointed facial expression. There was no awkward moment. The group, women ranging in age from their 40s to their 70s, in business suits, bold sweaters and glamorous jewelry, demonstrated their high spirits and positive energy with a hearty laugh.

I learned a lot about the audience through their reaction to this one tiny word. I never would have offered it myself, of course, but to observe them in their "natural habitat" where they meet regularly and feel comfortable with each other was priceless, and showed me a lot about the culture and spirit of the group.

Not only did I enjoy speaking to this group, I joined!

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