How do you prepare a presentation when you don’t know your audience? - The Pickering Group

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How do you prepare a presentation when you don’t know your audience?

Recently I was asked this question at a workshop. So I did what I always do when this question comes up: I pushed back.

“Give me an example of when you don’t know your audience,” I asked.

As we dug deeper, we found that we couldn’t figure out a time when we either didn’t know our audience, or couldn’t find out more. 

We sometimes think that our audience is a bit of a mystery, or that we don’t need to think about who they are before we present – but the opposite is true. We can always find out more about our audience – and it’s an essential step to take when crafting effective presentations.

“To whom it may concern”

Your audience is the most important part of your presentation. They’re the people you’re trying to convince or persuade of some fact or change, after all – so the deeper you understand them, the better your chances are of persuading them to do something differently.

Putting in the effort to consider your audience’s needs and then designing your message and delivery to them is really just part of respecting the people you’re talking to.

To quote the great Ken Haemer, former AT&T presentation research manager, “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘To whom it may concern’.” And if you want your audience to love you (well maybe not love, but certainly get behind what you’re saying), then you have to understand what’s going to connect, what they know, and where you’re going to meet them.

That’s why a lacklustre presentation often feels as generic as a greeting card: they’re no connection, no passion, no interest.

As a presenter, it’s dangerous to give your audience a message that’s irrelevant and uninteresting – and the consequences of that can be a boredom that borders on hostility.

[Death To Smoochy (2002) The Set-Up: In 2002’s Death to Smoochy, Edward Norton’s children’s entertainer character gets a limited brief on his next gig.]

Point A to Point B

Your audience is part of the Point A of a good presentation. Where you want to take them is your Point B. So you have to meet your audience at their Point A, if you want to have any hope of persuading that your Point B is worthwhile.

All good and great presentations work because you create something that connects with your audience. 

Even if you get a basic brief, you have to ask the right questions. Here are four that will get you where you need to go:

  • Who are they?

Ask questions about the demographics, psychographics, age, gender, seniority, experience, interests and commonalities of your audience. The more you understand them, the better your chance of forming a real connection.

  • What’s going on with them?

Get to know their issues or concerns. When you empathise with their challenges, you’ll build trust – then you’ll show your solution is the right one to invest in. 

  • What’s their level of knowledge?

More expert audiences will expect more granular details, whereas less familiar audiences will tune out of jargon and acronyms. When you’ve got a mixed audience, identify who your target stakeholders and decision-makers are – then speak to their experience. 

  • What’s in it for them?

A good presenter should clearly articulate the value and benefit they bring to the audience. Take that proof, and show them how they’ll be improved by the time they leave the (virtual) room.

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