Do you dust off the same presentation with minor tweaks every time you speak on a similar topic, or do you spend time adapting it to your audience?
We have all heard the advice, ‘know your audience,’ but it is tempting to overlook it when you are under pressure.
Most people who suffer from public speaking anxiety have had a bad experience in the past. There can be many reasons for this, such as poor preparation. But, I’m willing to bet a fair proportion of people have had a presentation bomb because they have not tailored it to their audience.
Today’s post is a story about how things can go wrong when you assume all your audiences are the same!
I was leading a public speaking course for a group of graduates in a large infrastructure business. These grads were the cream of the crop – young, bright engineers, scientists, and analysts. They were a close-knit group who knew each other well and enjoyed lunches and after-work drinks together.
At their second session, they each gave a 3-minute speech about themselves. Most spoke about their education and journey to being selected for the grad programme at this business. Some spoke about obstacles along the way, and most people expressed gratitude for the opportunities they had been given.
I was looking forward to hearing from Brad (not his real name). He was an outspoken member of the group and exceptionally funny at impromptu speaking. But Brad stood up and talked for two minutes about how he had not prepared a speech! He spoke confidently, used voice and body language exceptionally well, and was very funny. And he got away with it - the other grads thought he was hilarious!
Although the group loved it, I was a little disappointed. I already knew he was good at impromptu speaking and I wanted to see what would happen when he added great content to his already good delivery skills. I did not get to know Brad any better - except to learn that he is a procrastinator! I gave Brad some positive feedback but I warned him that, in a business setting, he would not get away with a stunt like that. However, I acknowledged that his audience appreciated his speech.
Brad dropped out of the course at that point, so he did not get a chance to do his second speech.
Later in the year, I ran a similar course for the same organisation but this time it was for anyone in the business – i.e. not targeted at graduates. I was surprised to see Brad’s name on the list. I queried it and was told that he was very keen to attend because he had not been able to complete the earlier course.
The format of this course was a little different. I ran it over two days and the participants had to give their ‘about me’ speech on the first day.
Once again, I had a variety of speeches. Most people in the group were a little older, and many chose to speak about how their careers had led them to their current job. Unexpectedly, a couple were deeply personal – one spoke of mental health issues and an extreme lack of self-esteem, and another spoke of growing up with domestic violence. The group were very supportive and appreciative that these people had shown so much vulnerability.
And guess what Brad did? The exact same non-speech that he gave in the grad program! I was the only person who had heard it before. It started OK with people laughing as he talked about driving to work that morning thinking ‘Oh s## I have not prepared a speech.’ But when they realised that he really had not prepared a speech, the room went quiet.
As luck would have it, I had assigned two older women to his feedback group - where participants gave feedback to each other. As I circulated the room, I could pick up some of what they were saying to him. The gist was that what he had done was not appropriate, that everyone else had taken the exercise very seriously, and that he had been given an opportunity with this training that he was not making the most of! They were kind to him but also very firm. I could see him nodding and looking rather ashamed!
The following week, the participants had to do a short work-related presentation. I finally heard Brad talk about his job! It still fell short of what I know Brad is capable of – but I think he learned two valuable things from the course.
I have had my own experiences of not being aware enough of my audience. I once had to present to staff in two different locations about some upcoming changes. The first group was not affected by the changes but they were interested and that presentation went well. The second group was affected by the changes and had some concerns. That presentation did not go well because we didn’t do enough to address the concerns and we couldn’t answer many of their questions.
Another time I rolled out a training programme that had suited all my clients to date. However, I did not realise I would have every member of the senior leadership team (including the CEO) at the training! It still went pretty well but there were aspects I would have changed if I had asked more questions about who would be there!
These days, I try to find out as much as possible about my audience before I speak. Most of my speaking is part of public speaking training so these are the sorts of things I need to know:
Your audience’s demographics, knowledge of the subject, and motivations for attending are the basic information you should have about any audience. But, when you are caught up in the pressures of preparing a presentation it is surprisingly easy to plan your content without thinking enough about the audience.
Article written by Catherine Syme
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.