The Only Thing That Matters to Your Audience

By Lou Solomon

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Rob is a productivity consultant. He teaches leaders to manage their workflow, work smarter, and accomplish more. Since saving time is something people care about, he has been successful.

Earlier this year, I watched from the back of the room as Rob began his presentation to a group of leaders. He was still on his first few slides when one of the managers raised her hand and said, “Many of us are in the retail side of the business, and we’re not always in control of our hours. How does your model work for us?”

Rob was a strong speaker, and he had great content. He had prepared but didn’t know his audience as well as he needed to. He hadn’t customized his program to the audience, a mix of corporate leaders and regional retail managers.

Zelensky Understands His Audiences

No one in recent history has done a better job of knowing his audience than President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.

He took his case to world leaders in the U.S. Congress, U.K Parliament, leaders in Germany, and the Canadian Parliament, just to name a few. His speeches received standing ovations.

How was he able to do that? Was it by articulating the pain and plight of Ukraine civilians? Yes, but he bonded with his audiences by references to well-known events, people, or places that remind audiences of the values they shared with him.

Zelensky taught us, once again, that knowing your audience is everything. Leadership still requires crafting a message effectively to connect with the hearts and minds of one’s audience.

In his address to the U.S. Congress on March 16, Zelensky said:

“Americans, in your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians, understand us now when we need you, right now. Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it. Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields, when innocent people were attacked, attacked from the air. Just like no one else expected, you could not stop it.”

What most people want to learn when it comes to being a public speaker is not strategic planning — it’s about overcoming nervousness and having a presence. There’s nothing wrong with that; learning to show up and manage adrenaline can be transformative. But for whatever reason, the art of strategic planning has never risen to the same focus, although it’s the core element of great speeches.

Aristotle, the Teacher

Zelensky may well be a student of Aristotle (384-322 BC), who established the audience-centric approach and advised speakers to know their audience.

Aristotle believed persuasion has less to do with overcoming nervousness and more with learning how people listen to us. He encouraged speakers to think about their audience, not about themselves:

1.) Begin with ‘Who’?

We know Zelensky began by asking: Who is the audience? What historical elements bind them to each other? Every aspect of a high-stakes presentation, including word choices, metaphors, and connection to their beliefs, is essential.

2.) Get Grounded in Your Goal

Zelensky used images and quotes to stir a sense of patriotism within his audience. His goal was to have them transfer their emotion to the Ukrainian people.

Aristotle believed that by sticking to one’s purpose, a speaker could stay focused and eliminate anxiety.

3.) Give Your Audience Something Meaningful

We’ve all heard speakers with the transparent goal of selling themselves, their company, or their products and services.

Your success is tied to you demonstrating to your audience that you’re not just selling your ideas. Instead, you’re talking directly to them, understand who they are, and are sincerely interested in connecting and bringing value.

Why Should I Care?

In school, my first love was Journalism. I learned to begin an article by asking questions. Dr. Norton drilled into our heads, “Before typing a word, ask, ‘What is the main idea, and why should your readers care?'”

Today the team at Interact Studio coaches leaders of all descriptions. Occasionally we have to deliver the hard truth — nobody cares about your company, and they only care about how you improve their lives.

Research is a central part of the process. Learn everything you can about whom you’re talking to — the problems they face and the solutions they need. Research their most recent experiences and use that information to build your message.

I’ve learned that what your audience cares about falls into five categories.

  1. Ambition: Money, influence, saving time to make money
  2. Humanitarian: Noble causes, finding purpose, leaving a legacy
  3. Quality of life: Community, personal rights, family, safety
  4. Analytical: Accuracy, due diligence, credibility
  5. Experience: Entertainment, enjoyment, humor

It’s your job as the speaker to understand the audience you are speaking to and what they hope to get out of your presentation. Knowing your audience is critical and helps bring your presentations to the next level of quality and value. Do you know who your audience is?

How the Audience Wants the Information

Even if your content is on target, you risk losing us if you don’t understand our preferences. For example:

Bottom Line Oriented. Dominant decision-makers usually want short and outcome-focused presentations. This crowd wants you to “Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.”

People-Oriented. Some audiences care deeply about their teams and how to improve their performance by building a culture of trust. They also enjoy being inspired and motivated.

Analytical. The CFO and her team want you to show that due diligence, attention to detail, and ROI. For this audience, feel-good goals can be off-putting. They want the facts.

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