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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Know your audience

As you plan a presentation or meeting – even if it’s an informal one – do you ask yourself: “Who are my audience?” An audience can be a large crowd… a small group… or just one person. And obvious as it may sound, you need to consider who they are and what it is about your message that will make them take notice.

That means really putting yourself in their shoes. What do they regard as main ‘need to knows’ on this subject – here, now?

No matter how vital or interesting your message may seem to you, if you don’t tailor it to this particular audience, in this particular place and time, you’re wasting your efforts. Too many business presenters assume that bombarding an audience with information is what it’s all about. But if your audience don’t regard that information as important, they’ll switch off.

Think about it this way: if your car breaks down on the motorway on a Friday night in the rain, you’ll probably be focused on:

•   a Plan B for getting to your destination

•   how soon the car can be mended

•   what that’s likely to cost.

The car mechanic sent to your rescue might be a passionate enthusiast about everything that goes on under the bonnet. However, a long explanation of why your ignition timing could be faulty, or how inline multi-cylinders operate, is unlikely to be what you most want to hear at that moment.

Really considering what your audience needs to hear means not blinding them with science   (unless they’re scientists, that is). In other words, speak their language, and address their ‘need to knows’, not your own ‘want to tells’.

Most important of all, make sure your presentation answers their ‘what’s in it for me?’.

Someone with a large ego, for example, may need to hear about how your new idea will make him or her look good to the boss. New recruits who lack self-esteem may need to hear that you think highly of their potential and feel confident that they can implement your new idea successfully. A team of people who are generally resistant to change may need to hear that your new idea will make their job easier and quicker. Same idea.  Different packaging.  The better you know them, the more opportunity you have to build your message around the stuff they’ll really take on board – so if you don’t know them well, do your research.

Conversely, if they’re long-standing colleagues, you probably know what makes them laugh – and what you could draw upon by way of well-established ‘in-jokes’ and banter that everyone enjoys. Making an audience laugh can work wonders to get them listening and on your side – and you can then pack a real punch with a more serious point.

Of course, not everyone is a born comedian, and trying to ‘be funny’ when it doesn’t come naturally can easily backfire. Humour doesn’t have to be forced, though.  It can emerge naturally from a reference you make to something that you already know will have a specific resonance for this audience. ‘Referring back’ is a useful technique rarely exploited at conferences or long meetings that include various presentations. If you pull out a point made by a previous speaker to underline something in your own presentation, you help everyone there feel part of a larger whole.  Acknowledgement of an experience shared in this room, with these people, that everyone enjoyed first time round, creates the intimacy of community – an instant ‘in-joke’, if you like.

That’s hardly surprising: the word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin verb ‘communicare’ – ‘to share’ or ‘to make common’.  The same root gives us ‘communal’ and ‘community’.

So good communication automatically creates a sense of community.

To reinforce that sense, you might choose occasionally to single out an individual – as long as you’re doing it in a benign manner and are certain they won’t mind, of course.  Address the appropriate person by name and ask for input that will usefully support or expand upon your own message (without, however, allowing yourself to get completely hijacked!):

“I know you’ve been working on Project X in depth over the last month, Alex – would you agree with what I’ve been saying about adopting the same approach for Project Y in the next quarter?”  

Paying attention to your audience as individual human beings suggests that you’re at ease and in tune with this specific group – which helps everyone else feel more at ease and in tune.  It also shows that you’ve been listening to contributions from others – not just worrying about your own. So begin your preparation by asking yourself:

  • What matters to them?  

  • How can I get my message to press their ‘hot buttons’?  

  • What will they see as benefits – and how can I sell them those?  

Even though you may think it’s not your job to sell, most business interactions involve persuading or influencing others – which means selling them an idea. And my perceptions about ‘What’s in it for me?’ can be very different from yours.

Recognise that – and you have a powerful means of making sure your message hits home.

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