May 26, 2010

Missed your audience's boat?

Sometimes it's hard to read the audience. I've written before about not taking it personally when someone is sitting stonefaced (maybe that's just his face) or playing on their Blackberry (this is the 2000s version of doodling).

But the truth is, sometimes we get a puzzling response from the audience, and it has nothing to do with our content or delivery.

I worked with a group of executives a while back who were finding themselves newly responsible for taking their company from a small regional outfit to a nationally recognized contender in their industry. The staff felt pressure to put forth a more professional image, do more public speaking, and represent the company on a larger scale.

I spent a half day coaching this group and, while the group was a little reserved, I thought it went well. That's when, in our last five minutes, one of the participants brought up something the CEO had mentioned about the group's presentation styles, and it threw me for a loop. Suddenly I feared that I had completely missed the boat with this group and had been leading them in the wrong direction all day.

So we had a brief discussion to clarify the issue, to see how the rest of the group perceived the question and my coaching, and we all agreed we were on the same page.

But that wasn't good enough for me. I was still concerned. I spoke briefly with the organizer of the meeting before I left, and she said she would look into it.

Over a week went by before we were able to speak again, and in that week, I worried and fretted. Had I given them what they wanted? Had I failed? Were they going to ask for their money back?!

In the end, I spoke with the organizer, and everything was fine. In fact, the feedback from the group was excellent, and it turns out that the CEO's comments related to a different group of employees who are far less experienced as presenters.

I should have trusted myself. I researched the group in advance and talked at length with the organizer, and believed I had found out everything I needed to know. But sometimes someone throws a curve ball, and suddenly all my careful planning and preparation is turned upside down -- in my head at least.

It's the worst feeling not to know if you've met your audience's expectations. Sometimes you're picking up on something that has nothing to do with you or your presentation. The best you can do is address it and try to talk it out to make sure you're reading the group correctly and meeting their needs sufficiently.

At some point, you have to let go of the worry and uncertainty about the situation. At some point, you have to trust you've done the right thing. But always follow up with the organizer and get feedback, and offer to remedy the situation if things did not go as planned.

It turns out I had nothing to worry about. But had I taken the wrong approach with this group, I would have wanted to know, and I would have wanted to fix it!

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