How To Understand Your Audience by Asking 7 Important Questions

By Lou Solomon

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Preparing for a presentation and your audienceAre you preparing to give a high-stakes talk? Here are a few insurance policies great communicators and leaders are likely to consider about their audience:

Establish Your Motive, Goal, and Purpose

First, think beyond your personal motive, which is different from your goal and both are different from your purpose.

  1. Motive. Your motive in speaking to a particular group might be to gain credibility with the audience, to make inroads into a particular organization or industry, or to sell copies of your book. Your motive may energize you, but by itself, it doesn’t mean much unless you tap into the audience’s motive for paying attention to you.
  2. Goal. Your goal is twofold: Why are you speaking, and what do you want the audience to do? Are you there to educate, persuade, motivate, inspire or entertain? Do you want the audience to take action, and if so, what exactly? Knowing your goal will help you measure your success.
  3. Purpose. Here’s where humility comes in. Your purpose is about bringing value to the audience. People know when you are sincerely interested in them. Show respect by doing your homework to be relevant. Put your focus on the audience, not on your own agenda.

How to Know Your Audience

There is no such thing as too much time spent learning about your audience. Every moment you spend learning about your audience will increase the odds that your talk will be a success. Many years ago I heard a piece of advice that has stuck with me: “It’s not about you. The audience is always asking, “Does this apply to me?”

It’s not enough to be a great speaker with a great idea. If you don’t spend time in your audience’s shoes, you may find yourself in a bad place, presenting basic information to an advanced audience, or advanced information to a less experienced audience.

At Interact we call that place “the Valley of Irrelevance,” where listeners decide you don’t have anything of interest to say to them. They disengage, change channels, and pull out their devices. Once in the valley, it’s almost impossible for a speaker to dig out.

7 Questions to Ask About Your Audience

1) Who are they?

Ask your contact to help you understand the demographic profile of the group. Gender mix, generational diversity, and professional roles offer the kind of information that will help you shape an audience profile. Consider the relevance of your message based on this profile.  If you’re speaking to a group from a health care system, you need to know if you are speaking to administrators, nurses, physicians, or foundation representatives—or a more general audience that will include a mix. If you are speaking to a group of senior executives, their time is short so get to the point.

2) What has the audience been told about you?

Ask your contact to copy you on the invitations, flyers and web pages promoting your talk. What are people being told about your talk?

3) What are their issues or hot buttons?

Interview respected people within the group to identify the mood and hot buttons of the group. Hot buttons such as saving time and money, lowering stress, finding a new tool to reach their goals and increasing productivity can help you put address audience benefits. It’s also a good idea to ask these same influencers to share their thoughts during the presentation.

4) What’s the buzz?

Are you current with the conversation? Research the tweets, articles, and newsletters that will help you understand the city, club, association, industry leaders, recent developments, etc. What are people saying?

5) Do you know what the presenters before you will talk about?

If you know the themes and core messages that have already been explored, you can adjust the time you spend on those things.

6) Still feel short on information?

If you’re feeling light on audience information, send out a simple online survey in advance to capture what people want to hear about and any questions they might have on the topic. You can weave the answers to these questions into your talk.

7) What’s your common ground with the audience?

Include mentions of your experience that make you a relevant speaker for the audience. What are the background experiences that tell the audience you understand them? Geography, history, memories, and timelines will connect you to the audience. For example, you might be a speaker for a hospital foundation. You might include an anecdote about getting your tonsils removed as a child–how medicine has changed since then.

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