There are three things to aim at in public speaking: first, to get into your subject; then to get your subject into yourself; and lastly, to get your subject into the heart of your audience.” – Alexander Gregg

As a speaker, you’re a little bit like a waiter at a restaurant serving up your presentation. The problem is that everyone has vastly different tastes; there is no 100% perfect message that will satisfy everyone. Some people like pizza, some prefer filet mignon, and some just want a few toaster pastries served cold on a plate. The way to mitigate a riot of unhappiness at your “restaurant” is to anticipate their needs. You need to know your audience; it’s the only way you can receive a massive tip at the end of the “meal.” Extensive (and well-thought-out) metaphor aside, where do you begin?

The Basics – Who Am I Talking To?

Start by playing a rudimentary game of Guess Who? as you consider your audience. Public speaking coach Lenny Laskowski created a great acronym for A.U.D.I.E.N.C.E that can cover the basics:

The Complete Guide to Knowing Your Audience

If the group you’re presenting in front of is especially large and hard to count/see, then you might consider using an interactive audience polling app before, after, or during your presentation. Slideklowd, for instance, can track individual responses and offers other engagement tools. If you’re looking for a straightforward “check yes or no” kind of poll, polltogo (all one word) is one of the most popular apps for the job. Gathering information that reveals A.U.D.I.E.N.C.E is the first step in discovering exactly what they are hungry for.

Getting Personal – What Keeps Them Up At Night?

You have a symbiotic relationship with the audience. Without them, there’s nothing for you to do. Without you, they have no reason for being there. So you’re dependent upon one another to pull this thing off.” – Peter Coughter

The same skill set that helped you develop your presentation pitch can also help you uncover what exactly your audience wants. Why are they filling those chairs on the day of your talk? It may be for the same reason that you are standing in front of them if your presentation solves, updates, improves, or informs. If it’s an issue that they are unfamiliar with, how can you relate the problem to something that they do care or know about?

The Complete Guide to Knowing Your Audience

Start by revising the core of your content to pull apart the important takeaway of the lesson. Think of it like a party favor at a birthday: what are they going to leave the room with? It doesn’t have to be a kazoo, but it should be something that adds value to their lives.  Don’t go into a presentation before understanding what’s keeping them up at night, tossing and turning and tearing out their hair.

Shaping Your Talk – How Can You Mold Your Content?

Once you’ve gotten a better understanding of your audience, the next big question to ask is: “do I need to go back and revise my content?”

It’s a tough question to ask, mostly because it asks you not to tailor the message for yourself, but instead ensure your audience will be happy. “The customer is always right” in this restaurant, otherwise you may find yourself in a dine-and-ditch situation. When going back to edit the content of slides or the outline of your talk, focus on these three areas:

Tone – This informs the language you use and the way you deliver your talk. Consider the tone you would use in front of a group of kindergarteners versus a group of brain surgeons, for instance. Your audiences may not be that diverse, but they are still going to have preferences. Do they want to hear your presentation from the tone of a professional or a peer?

JargonAccording to Merrium-Webster, “jargon” means: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity, group, profession, or field of study.” How familiar will your audience be the the terminology of your presentation? Don’t include unfamiliar terms without explaining them, or conversely, don’t talk down to your audience if they already know everything about your content.

Relevant Information – It’s a fact of life: investors are going to want to see the numbers which back up your claims, and consumers are going to want to see everything else but numbers. Be sure that you’re editing out anything which won’t interest, help, or inform your specific audience group.

Getting to Know You

A 2003 study in The Harvard Business School Press discovered that there are five dimensions on which you can understand your audience:

“Openness vs. closed: their receptiveness to new ideas.

Powerful vs. subservient: the power relationships in the room.

Engaged vs. disengaged: connection with the speaker.

Allied vs. opposed: the extent of agreement with you.

Committed vs uncommitted: the further buy-in to your ideas.

Will your audience be open, powerful, engaged, allied, and committed to your message? If not, start from the beginning. Don’t enter the room without being confident that you understand their needs, or you’re wasting their valuable time by delivering a dish they don’t want.

The Complete Guide to Knowing Your Audience

Introverts and Extroverts – How Can You Encourage Participation?

It doesn’t matter if your entire audience is made up of rocket scientists who like spaghetti; there is still going to be a mix of introverts and extroverts in the audience. This concept was developed by psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920’s as a way to categorize human behavior.

By definition, “extraversion” is: “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.”

And “intraversion” is: “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.”

Understanding both of these tendencies will inform the level of participation you’ll want to have, as well as the kinds of activities you do. Here are three things to keep in mind as you prepare:

The #1 Rule: Make it Voluntary – Introverts will hate being goaded into the spotlight, and extroverts are going to hate being quieted. Make sure any participation you ask for is voluntary, and not reminiscent of a teacher calling a random student up to the blackboard. You may even consider offering incentive for participation if the message calls for it; people love free stuff and “atta boy’s.”

Appeal to Introverts – While they often have as much information to share as an extrovert, be sure that the environment is comfortable for them to participate in. Don’t ask audience members to stand up, introduce themselves, or wave their arms around in order to be heard.

Appeal to Extroverts – You shouldn’t throw out the idea of voluntary participation altogether, as extroverts will feel more engaged with the content if they feel they are adding value. This includes asking questions of your audience, requesting volunteers, and so on.

The Closer – What Do You Need Them To Do?

Once you’ve begun to understand your audience a little better, have shaped your content, and created ways for different personalities to interact with it, then you are ready to tailor the close of your presentation. We refer to this as a “call to action,” or CTA. It is the direction that you leave your audience with and answers the question: what do you want them to do with the information they’ve received?

Strong calls to action accomplish the following: they trigger an emotional response, convey a sense of urgency, and give incentive.

You can make sure that your CTA is effective for your specific audience by ensuring that the incentive is something they would actually want. What does a room full of investors want most? Probably a lot of return. What do a room filled with doctors want most? Probably the wellness of their patients (and their own sanity). How can you appeal to our natural desires by making your call-to-action work towards their goal? For those investors, use actionable language that is straight-forward and boils down to “you will see the return if you invest X-amount of dollars.” It can be an even more simple CTA such as asking for sign-ups, email addresses, or even a high-five.

A Michelin-Star Presentation

Once you’ve truly gotten to know your audience, the rest comes naturally. You’ll be providing them with the right message at the right time, like a perfectly-made souffle. Get to know the people you are delivering your message to, what they are hungry for, and how best to serve them. It can make all the difference in the world.

Question: How can you get to know your audience?


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