August 2009

Speaker, know thy audience

By Paul Gruhn

In order to customize your talk for each group, you should know at least the size, age, and education and experience of your group before you prepare your talk. One way to do this is ask your host. Or simply ask the audience some questions before you start.

Will you be talking to a group of five, 50, or 500? This may not impact what you say, but it may impact how you say it and what you bring with you. A hands-on demonstration planned for a group of five will not work so well with a group of 50.

Are you 50 years old and talking to a group in their 20s, or are you in your 20s and talking to a group in their 50s? How would you expect each person to be perceived in such a case? You can only go so far emulating the style of others. A 50-year-old acting like a 24-year-old will not be taken very seriously. Perhaps someone else in your company might be a better match with the audience.

Subject interest, knowledge

Just because people are attending your talk does not mean they know anything about the subject, or that they have the same level of understanding of the subject you do. Are they newbies, experts, or somewhere in between? Are you discussing physics with a bunch of Einsteins, or introducing the topic to a bunch of school children? I have known speakers who gave the same presentation no matter who the audience. They never even asked or tried to find out, and that is a big mistake. Speakers are typically experts on their subject. They deal every day with other people in their company who have a similar level of knowledge. However they mistakenly assume their audience has the same level of knowledge, education, and background information. This is usually not the case.

Do the people in your audience have a high school diploma, two-year technical school degree, Bachelor's or Master's degree, or a Ph.D.? You need to talk differently to each group.  You may need to dress differently for each group as well.

Experience, expectations

There is a difference between knowledge and experience. Someone might be very knowledgeable about something (through reading), but may never have actually experienced the topic first hand. You may or may not be talking about something with which the audience has actual experience. If they do, that experience may not be positive. You could potentially be walking into a minefield. Ask the right questions before you start so you do not end up shooting yourself in the foot.

What is the audience really expecting to get out of your talk? You may be very surprised with the answers if you just ask. If they are happy to listen and learn from you, but they end up buying from your competitor, you did not help your cause very much.

The audience may not have first-hand experience with your topic, but they may have strong opinions, and possibly not positive ones. It is human nature to form strong opinions, even if you do not really have any first-hand experience. Ask the right questions up front to find out what people think as opposed to what they know.

You might think you were called in to present about your wonderful solution. But what if they really have people internally who are violently opposed to it, and they just want to gather further information against your proposal? Have you even checked? It might be difficult to determine if this is the case, but it is worth checking.

If they do not have experience or an opinion, they might have attitude about your topic. You might work for a company known for an expensive high-quality product or service that you usually sell by showing lower total lifecycle costs. However, the prospect may have an ingrained company culture that mandates buying everything based on the lowest initial purchase price. Your philosophies are at opposite ends of the spectrum. You must ask questions and find out information like this before you start your presentation.

Make your point

Do not make your audience wonder what you are talking about; tell them up front. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat through a presentation and 15 minutes into it wondered, 'What is this guy talking about? He meandered around a bunch of different subjects, and I do not see a connection.' It may seem obvious to you, but it is not to everyone else.

Why should they listen? If there is no personal gain for the members of your audience, they will simply tune you out. You must state the benefit your audience will gain by listening to your presentation. This may range from cost savings, time savings, increased productivity, more efficient operations, and so on.

Who do you think you are? Make sure you point that out up front as well. If you are a salesperson trying to sell a technical concept to a group of technical people, they may not give you much credence. If you are trying to present the intricacies of something you have never actually done (like skydiving), and someone in the audience asks you a probing question you cannot answer, things will most likely come to a screeching halt. Have managers present to managers, engineers present to engineers, and technicians present to technicians. Sales people may make the initial contacts and high-level presentation, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, get others involved.


Paul Gruhn, PE, CFSE is the training manager at ICS Triplex in Houston, an ISA Fellow, a member of the ISA84 committee, and an esteemed ISA instructor and author.