Published on December 10, 2020
As I near the two-decade mark teaching presentations to professionals, you might say I’ve seen it all. From the brilliantly terrified to the underprepared but overly confident, speakers each start with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. However, there are some common traps that all speakers need to beware of no matter where they begin in their journey. One of those is the accidental audience.
The first rule of presentations is to start with your audience. What do you know about them? What do they know about you and your topic? What are they afraid of? What are they excited by? These are just a few of the questions that form the baseline of a basic audience analysis for successful speakers.
And while we’re aware of this first rule, it requires deliberate concentration to employ it as a habit. Those who do are the speakers we all want to listen to because they have shown that they know how to listen to us first.
In contrast, I’ve also seen the tricky ways our brains resist doing this work. And it is hard work to consider the perspective of our audiences, especially if our differences are things that challenge us in some way.
Let me give you an example. Recently, I ran an online presentation workshop for a group of talented technical professionals. We practiced audience analysis as they all prepped for upcoming presentations to their leadership.
During the workshop conclusion, all participants described how their presentations went. Most were thrilled to report the outstanding feedback they received from their leaders and the newfound confidence they gained from successful performances.
However, two speakers had quite a different audience reaction. Their audiences wanted something different from what they had presented. The speakers realized this because our workshop required them to gather audience feedback metrics, and the feedback they got was crystal clear.
What happened to these two speakers? How did they miss our in-depth discussions and practice with audience analysis to receive this sort of feedback when their peers had excelled?
The short answer is empathy – or in this case – lack thereof. A successful audience analysis requires empathy. Think of empathy as the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The speakers who were able to engage empathy in their audience analysis were able to precisely target their messages to their audiences.
Unfortunately, stress, self-focus, and lack of time can greatly hinder our empathetic abilities. If we don’t recognize this handicap, our presentations will target the perspective we know and love best: our own.
In other words, we are often the accidental audience of our less-than-successful presentations.
To their credit, the two speakers each acknowledged they had accidentally crafted their presentations for themselves. From the audience feedback, they learned how problematic this mismatch of perspectives can be, and they learned how to avoid this pitfall in the future.
Like those speakers, we have all fallen into this trap at one time or another. When we get busy, distracted, and time-crunched, we default to our own needs, wants, and interests.Only when we acknowledge this default can we mindfully combat it.
So, as you prepare for your next presentation, start with the audience – but don’t stop there. Ask yourself these four questions as you prep for your next presentation –
1. Are the commonalities you see between yourself and your audience actually accurate or simply convenient?
2. What different pressures or responsibilities may your audience have from your own?
3. How will your audience immediately use information from or be impacted by your presentation?
4. In a single sentence, what is the essential message your audience needs to take away from your presentation?
We can all do better at questioning our messages and motives as we communicate with others. While we may not always get it right, a strong focus on audience analysis helps us work toward being less accidental and more mindful presenters.
As the founder and principal of TechForum Consulting LLC, Christine brings her passion for solving problems to each workshop, coaching, and training session she leads. During her 17-year academic career, she was a pioneer in online graduate engineering education, first acting as faculty in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Engineering Management program, and later designing and leading an innovative online graduate capstone certificate in professional foundations. Parallel to her academic career, she has consulted and developed training programs for organizations such as Boeing, 3M, Cummins, Upsher-Smith Pharmaceuticals, and John Deere. In 2014, based on her extensive work in the field of presentation design, she co-authored the book, SlideRules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields, published by IEEE-Wiley.