What would you think of a dermatologist who diagnosed a rash on your leg—without bothering to look at it?
Not much, probably. No wonder it makes me nervous when I see presenters rushing into an audience without knowing anything about the people to whom they’re speaking. They’re making a comparable mistake.
If you’re going to ask people to do something new or think in a different way—most talks are intended to move listeners from one point to another—it’s essential to consider one often-overlooked piece of the speaking equation, without which none of your other efforts will matter: the audience itself.
These 10 diagnostic questions will help you decide the overall approach you should take:
1. Who are they?
Knowing something about your audience’s age, income, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, profession, political affiliation, professional experience, job title, educational background, organizational memberships and hobbies can change the way you frame your topic.
2. Who are you?
Does the audience have a pre-formed opinion of you, your organization or your profession? If so, and if they’re prone to view you skeptically, you’ll want to establish common ground early.
3. What do they value?
Knowing what matters most to your audience helps you align your topic with their most deeply held values. For example, if you represent a local credit union and you’re speaking to a veterans group that values community service highly, you might emphasize your institution’s local charitable endeavors more than your low interest rates. (You might even discuss your interest rates in the context of how they benefit the community.)
4. How relevant is your topic to them?
If the audience is already invested in your topic and understands its relevance to their lives, you probably don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining why they should care about it. If, however, audience members are unlikely to understand your topic’s relevance, draw the connection between your topic and their interests quickly.
5. How much do they already know about your topic?
Your answer will help determine whether you should focus on the basics, more advanced material or some point in between.
6. How much do they need to know in order to accomplish your goals?
Many speakers answer “not much”—but then prepare presentations loaded with detail. This question centers on speakers’ making sure the level of detail they intend to share matches the level of detail they must share to accomplish their goals.
7. Do they view your topic favorably, neutrally or negatively?
Gauging how much resistance you’re likely to encounter could influence what you say and how you sequence your material. For groups that view your topic negatively, it’s generally best to raise their likely objections early in your talk, before they raise them for you.
8. What gaps in knowledge or misconceptions do they have about your topic?
The larger the misconception or gap in knowledge, the earlier you should address it in your talk. A proposal or idea can’t move forward until those misconceptions or gaps are sufficiently addressed, so spend a chunk of time in those areas before moving on.
9. What challenges or problems do they have related to your topic?
Knowing what challenges or problems your audience faces can provide crucial insight into how they might use the information you’re sharing. That knowledge can shift or narrow the frame of your talk to address their specific concerns.
I once saw a speaker with a not-for-profit organization encourage his colleagues from another department to get out of the office and visit donors more frequently. It never occurred to him to learn why they hadn’t been doing that in the first place: His colleagues all agreed with him—but their supervisor had repeatedly turned down their requests to leave the office.
His failure to investigate the audience’s challenges in advance resulted in a waste of everyone’s time. Had he learned the problem, he might have offered a more relevant solution—or deferred to someone else who could have provided one.
10. Are you speaking to one constituency or many?
Many groups have a variety of constituencies present, some of which have conflicting goals: senior managers and junior employees; supporters and opponents; manufacturers and regulators. On his public speaking website Six Minutes, Andrew Dlugan offers three approaches for mixed audiences:
- “Speak to only one sub-group of the audience and ignore the others.” This risky approach works best when you require the buy-in of only one segment of the group.
- “Address each of your audience sub-groups with different parts of your presentation.”
- “Ignore the differences between audience members, and instead focus on common appeals.”
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”