September 8, 2008

Who's in the audience and why should I care?

I imagine that those of you who read a lot of speaking blogs, books and newsletters tune out when you see this phrase, "know your audience." We talk about it all the time, but what does it really mean? And are you just paying lip service to this important aspect of preparation?

Why does it matter?

Have you ever gone to a training or workshop where the speaker makes the assumption that no one knows anything and that everyone in the room is a blank slate? This can be really insulting to your audience members, who have a lifetime of experience and knowledge to draw from and often have contributions to make to the presentation.

Another problem with not learning about your audience in advance is in presenting material that is too advanced or too simplistic. If you don't know your audience's level, you can't provide them with the appropriate information.

And of course, there's the problem of presenting information that's just irrelevant to them. When I give presentations on public speaking, I find (through my advance research) that some of my groups don't have much fear of speaking. In this case, I will still weave in bits and pieces about fear and anxiety in the context of other issues, but I'm not going to spend a big chunk of time on it if they don't need it.

What does it mean?

So, what does it mean to get to know your audience?

Here are a couple of ways I research my audience before and during the presentation.

1. Speak to the organizer

If you're speaking to an organized group of some sort, it's always a good idea to talk to the organizer of the event to find out what the group knows and needs.

Get some background on the company, the culture, the level of experience with your topic, the event you're part of, the demographics of the attendees, and basics like how many people will be there (I use a SurveyMonkey questionnaire for this so it can be completed easily online). The more you understand the culture of the group, the better prepared you will be.

2. Speak to the attendees

Maybe speaking to every attendee is a stretch, but you can always send a brief questionnaire to the organizer for distribution to the group (SurveyMonkey for this, too). The organizer will have some thoughts on the group and what they should learn, but you might be surprised to find that the attendees themselves have some different ideas about what they need and want.

And if you really want to get to know the group, then call up a couple of the attendees even after they've filled out the questionnaire. You might find out some valuable information.

3. Use the opening of your talk to read the audience

You know most of the reasons to have a strong opening, but here's a really good one: to determine your audience's mood and mindset, especially when it's an open presentation where the participants aren't known to you in advance. When you start with a few questions, are they eager or reluctant participants? Do they laugh easily at your funny story or are they stone-faced?

If you don't know the group, your opening questions can help you gauge the audience's knowledge and experience of your topic, in addition to reading their frame of mind.

Sometimes you just can't get a group revved up much if it's 8:00 in the morning and they've been out partying at a company event the night before (happened to me recently), but this will be valuable context for knowing how to move forward in your relationship with the audience.

Reading their mood, their group personality and getting a feel for where they're coming from at that moment will help you be flexible in how you proceed.

Don't tell me you don't have time to do this.

Do you want your presentation to be successful? Do you want the audience to do what you're asking: respond to your talk, buy your product or service, vote for your candidate, follow your recommendations, sign up on your list, adopt your solution, join your cause? Then do what you have to do to find out who's in the audience.

Never forget that your presentation is about the audience, not you. Always remember to provide relevant, practical tools that your audience can use. Always give value. The way to do that is to find out who they are and what they want and need before you ever set foot into the venue.

Share how you research your audience in the comments.

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Dr. Jim Anderson said...

Lisa makes a good point that all too many speakers don't take the time to do. I guess it's a little like "speaking homework" and you know how we all feel about that! I like all of her suggestions; however, I think that she forgot one: what to do when everything else fails!

Specifically, I've been thrust into a number of speaking situations where I didn't have the time to get a feel for the audience. Most of Lisa's suggestions required that most precious resource: time. If you don't have time (you're filling in at the last minute, the event just got scheduled for tomorrow, etc.), then you still have one trick up your sleeve. SHOW UP EARLY!

This is probably always a good idea; however, if you don't know your audience, then this becomes even more critical. If you are there when the first set of folks show up you can have a great talk with them. This can be critical - if something happened yesterday that is now on everyone's mind (layoff notices went out?) then you NEED to address this in your talk. It also serves a dual purpose of introducing you to the audience so that when you start to present, you are a friend not a stranger.

Just a few additional thoughts to consider...

- Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting - The Accidental Communicator Blog

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Yep, I forgot to mention arriving early to talk to the audience. Great reminder -- thanks!

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