Get into your audience’s skin

Presentations are all about people. So it makes sense that every inspiring presentation starts not with the content or the presenter in mind, but with the people it was intended for – your audience.

Carolyn Tate, a marketing guru and friend, once asked a financial planner who his audience was and he replied “Anybody with a pulse really”. The last thing we ever want to hear you say is your presentation is for everybody – with a pulse. That is the only way to ensure your presentation will fail.

There are three questions you must be able to answer before you begin any presentation:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What motivates them?
  3. What do they want from my presentation?

Research your audience.  It doesn’t matter if your audience is made up of your internal team that you know well or a bunch of total strangers, you must still be able to identify what their common problems and frustrations are. This is when you really start to live in your audience’s skin. You start to see the world like they do.

 A senior leader at a large financial organisation was presenting across the board to different levels of employees on a major change initiative, touting it as better way to do business, gain a competitive edge and improve shareholder value. She admitted that most people would be there because it was compulsory.

 Thinking about it more, she realised that the new change initiative would make everyone’s work and life so much easier. She also discovered she’d been pitching the project at too high a level so it sounded lofty in what it could achieve. While the project excited her, it was absolutely meaningless for her audience. With this new insight, she rewrote her presentation with the angle “I’m here to make your life and work easier”. Consequently, she enjoyed a much more positive response.

 Why is walking in your audience’s shoes, living in their skin so important? People need to feel you understand them first. As Stephen Covey says in his best seller ‘The 7 Habits of highly effective people’, seek to understand before being understood. Show your audience you understand them first and they will be open to connecting and understanding you.

 Of course, this needs to be done in an authentic, genuine and sincere way. Nothing stinks more than the feeling that someone’s faking it. Your audience will sense this immediately be immediately turned on.  But on the other hand nothing is  a bigger turn on for an audience than feeling ‘This presenter really gets me’.

Would you wear a bikini to work?

We hope not. Not unless it was wear-a-bikini-to-work day and the money raised went to a very worthy cause.

As humans, we have an inbuilt awareness of what is and is not appropriate in certain situations. We can apply this to presentations. There is always a context in which you are presenting. But context is often overlooked.

We’ve made this mistake too. We were once invited to speak at a professional member organisation’s Christmas lunch. We launched into a perfect execution of our organizational storytelling presentation, and were met with stone-cold faces. They were there for the Christmas lunch, the biggest social event of the year. With free wine flowing, the audience was in high spirits all the way through, but sadly not on account of our insights. We did receive a fine bottle of champagne as thanks and it took all our self-control not to drink it on the spot!

So always answer the following questions to prepare you for the context of your presentation:

  1. Why is your audience there?
  2. What does the audience want or need to know from the speakers?
  3. What do you think their attention span is going to be?
  4. Will you be competing against anything or anyone?
  5. Who else is speaking and what are they going to be talking about?

Now we always contact the organisers to find out the context of the presentation and sometimes this means holding off the presentation to another, more appropriate time. It’s in their best interests, as well as yours.

There is a pivotal scene in the film Any Questions for Ben that shows how context can make or break your presentation. When Ben, a twenty-something up-and-coming marketing exec, is invited to his old school to speak at a careers event, his presentation comes straight after Alexis, an international human rights lawyer who works with the United Nations in Yemen. Alexis’ presentation is moving, engaging and she gives the impression, in a very humble, yet self deprecating and humorous way, that she is changing the world. The audience hangs on her every word.

In comparison, Ben’s work seems mundane and even grubby. Immediately after he speaks, the panel moderator asks “Any questions for Ben?” A set of hands goes up, but the first question asked is “I want to ask Alexis …” When the moderator says they’ll be questions for Alexis later and again asks if there are any questions for Ben, all the hands go down and a deathly silence ensues. This moment creates an existential crisis for Ben that makes him question both his work, and his life purpose.

Sure, it’s a movie so they have to exaggerate the consequences of not getting your context, your audience or your presentation right. But it serves as a lesson for all of us, to do our homework and never end up with the presentation equivalent of wearing a bikini to work.