Listen to any speaking coach, go to any Toastmasters, attend any presentation seminar, you will hear a single phrase over and over. “Know your audience.” Sounds really good too. When we hear the phrase, we think, “Well, of course. That makes sense.” But what exactly does “know your audience mean?” Is there a formula to help a speaker know his or her audience better?
Well, yes, there is. In fact, every presenter should use this formula before creating any speech or any PowerPoint slide. Because the answers that you get from following the formula will greatly change what content you cover in your presentation. The answers will also allow you to change your delivery so that your audience is more likely to agree with you. (Buy what you are selling.)
The Primary Purpose of Most Presentations Is to Sell Something.
If you think about it, most presenters design presentations in order to get their audience to do something. You may not be selling a tangible item or a service, but you are at least selling an idea.
Earlier this week, one of my instructors said something to me that made me very sad. She said, “I don’t think I’m really good at selling.” That phrase made me sad for two reasons. First, because selling (persuading) is by far the absolute most important skill to success and happiness. And second, she is one of the most persuasive people that I know. The reason why she is a natural salesperson is that she focuses entirely on helping her audience get what they need. She doesn’t focus on what she wants.
I think a lot of people today misunderstand the entire concept of selling. For some reason, we see a salesperson as someone who takes from others. The opposite is true though. A good salesperson, a good presenter, helps his or her audience solve problems.
My wife and I (mostly my wife) recently hired a yard guy, Ramon, to do our lawn. I needed my Saturdays back. (That was my problem.) By the way, Ramon probably doesn’t see himself as a salesperson. He could be the best landscaper in the business, but if he can’t sell, he’s out of business. The same goes for every dentist, medical doctor, attorney, architect, and accountant. Nothing happens in business until somebody sells something.
The Four Things that You Need to Know About Your Audience Before You Try to Sell or Persuade Them.
With that being said… Now that we all know that we are all salespeople, let’s use these skills to help our audiences. The concept of “know your audience” can be confusing. When a lot of presenters hear this, they think of it in the context of what not to say versus presentation design. For instance, I shouldn’t tell the off-color joke in church. Or, this is a very technical audience, so I need to cover lots of details. Or, this audience of executives just wants an overview.
All of those alterations are superficial and miss the point of the concept. Basically, to really know your audience, there are four things that you want to uncover.
- First, Know the Primary Problem that Your Audience Is Trying to Solve.
- Next, Identify the Non-Negotiable Items that Your Audience (Buyer) Requires.
- Then, Try to Identify Any Additional Items the Audience May Want, But Won’t Make or Break the Agreement.
- Finally, Find Out the Emotional Motive that Would Cause the Audience to Take Action.
When we start designing a presentation, we often don’t have thorough answers to all of these questions. So often, we have to alter and adjust on the fly as we discover more about our audience. However, if you ask the right questions to the right people ahead of time, you will have fewer of these adjustments.
First, Know the Primary Problem that Your Audience Is Trying to Solve.
I remember the first sales course I ever attended. The instructor started the class by saying, “Last year one million quarter-inch drill bits were sold. None of the people who bought those drill bits wanted a 1/4-inch drill bit.” He paused dramatically. “What they all wanted was a 1/4-inch hole.”
At the time, I remember thinking, “What’s the difference?” It wasn’t until much later that I understood the brilliance of the concept he was teaching. Most people (all people?) are pretty self-centered. We are way more concerned about our problems than yours.
For instance, let’s say that a software engineer gives a report about a software update. The engineer can meticulously go through every single item that her team updated in this software release. However, if she did that, she’d just be talking about the drill bit. The audience member would be thinking, “I don’t care about your stupid drill bit (update.)”
On the other hand, if the engineer first thought about the problems that her audience experiences, the presentation becomes more interesting. The engineering team didn’t just pick random items to update. They chose items that were causing problems for the people in the audience. For example, “The old software layout caused you to have reenter data in places. This update does that for you saving you time.” (This version shows them the nice pretty 1/4 inch holes.)
Next, Identify the Non-Negotiable Items that Your Audience (Buyer) Requires.
Anytime a person buys something (an item, a service, or an idea,) that person creates a list of non-negotiables. These are the things that the buyer requires from the item, service, or idea. If any of these things are not present, the buyer will not purchase. Sometimes they create a written list. Most often, though, the person will not take a lot of mental effort to clarify the list. A good salesperson (a good presenter) can help them do this.
For instance, let’s say that a family wants new living room furniture. The family’s primary problem might just be that the current furniture is dated, so let’s get something new. If they create no additional criteria for buying, the process will be difficult. They will have an enormous number of choices. So they may start by measuring the space. They may also look at the current color scheme of the living room. In addition, they may decide that the current furniture has the focus around the TV. Mom wants the family to do projects together instead. So, she wants to make the center table the focus.
All of these items become non-negotiable. If the furniture is too big, we can’t buy it. The furniture must also fit our current color scheme. (We don’t want to also have to replace the carpet or rug.) The point is that most people who walk into a furniture store have not physically created this list ahead of time. Usually, questions from the salesperson help the family clarify these things.
You want to play the same role with your audience.
Case Study: How a Presentation Team Got to Know the Audience Better than They Knew Themselves.
Years ago, I was helping a team create a presentation to a school board to build a new high school. Before they brought me in to help, they organized their entire presentation around themselves. They talked about their years of experience, how qualified their team was, and how many high schools they had built. The team created a pretty good presentation but it was presenter-focused versus audience-focused.
I asked the team a simple question. “What do the members of this school board really want?” The answer I got was, “A new high school.” (The drill bit.) I asked a clarifying question, “Why do they need a new school?”
After thinking for a second, one of the team members responded with, “Because the current high school is overcrowded.” (The primary problem.)
Once we uncovered the true problem, identifying the buying criteria got easier. I asked the group for their thoughts on the criteria the board would use to make a decision. Criteria number one was unanimous — price. The city floated a bond for a specific amount. If the price of the new building exceeded this bond amount, they couldn’t buy it.
A major portion of the team agreed that the second non-negotiable was the schedule. If they couldn’t finish the building by the first of August, the district lost an entire school year of use.
The team continued to add items to the list including safety, maintenance costs, and environmental issues. Keep in mind that they created the entire list without any input from the school board. They just guessed. So to verify the items, they sent the list to their contact with the district. Then, they just asked the contact to rank the list in the order of importance.
It worked like a charm.
Then, Try to Identify Any Additional Items the Audience May Want, But Won’t Make or Break the Agreement.
The audience may want certain things that aren’t a requirement. However, if the solution contains a few of these things, all the better. Salespeople call these things “deal sweeteners.” For instance, when you buy a car, your non-negotiables may be dependability, gas mileage, price, etc. However, if you get all of those things and the car has Apple Carplay, power windows, and power seats, your decision gets much easier.
When people register for one of our classes, we offer them three 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions as well. We don’t charge for these sessions. The class member didn’t expect to have the sessions. But since they were offered, it takes the risk away from making a buying decision.
When you design your presentations, try to anticipate buying criteria that the audience may not be aware of. Then, add some of those items to your presentation as well. Going back to the software update example, something like this might be a deal sweetener. “By the way, we added something else in that is kind of cool. Now, when you log in, the software automatically pulls up the project you were last working on.”
Finally, Find Out the Emotional Motive that Would Cause the Audience to Take Action.
The last item that helps you know your audience better is called the “Emotional Motive.” Audiences always have two reasons to buy something or agree with the speaker. First, the thing being offered has to make logical sense. The second reason, though, is more emotional. You will deliver a more persuasive speech if you uncover this reason.
For instance, reducing the double-entry of data also reduces human error. One data entry person may have been reprimanded for errors. So this update adds more job security for him. Another might be detail-oriented but slower on the data entry. The update allows her to be more efficient and as a result more promotable.
The emotional motive can be difficult to anticipate. So let’s spend a little more time on this tip.
Know Your Audience by Anticipating Their Emotional Motive.
In the 1950’s Herman Maslow wrote that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. For instance, if a person is hungry or thirsty, all they will think about is food and water. Nothing else matters. A person may have food and water, but he worries about job security. If you don’t know when you will get your next paycheck, then getting that paycheck will consume you.
The point is that the people in your audience will likely be at different points on this hierarchy. Speakers who can anticipate where most of them will be will also be more persuasive. This final step sets the professional speakers apart from the amateurs. Really good speakers make their speeches relatable to audience members at different levels of this spectrum.
By the way, you can learn how to do this very quickly. The process isn’t hard. It just takes a little more prep time. (In all fairness, a VERY little extra time.)
Here is the process that I use.
Use Examples Based on Two or Three of the Most Common Emotional Needs.
When you design your presentation, mix up your types of examples and stories. Since we know that some of the audience members will be at the “security” level, choose a story they will relate to.
“Some of you may know that I am not the most detail-oriented person on the team. In fact, my boss has had to correct my data entry work on occasion. So not having to reenter the data a second and third time gets my boss off my back.
Then, you might add an additional example for the person at the “Belongingness” level.
“You guys all know that Jane is exceptional at working with customers. She gets very high survey results from people she interacts with. She gets these results because our customers love her. However, she also has the shortest call times of anyone on the team. She gets solutions for customers very quickly. This update should allow each of you to cut your call times down as well.
Each of these examples adds clarity by focusing on a different emotional need.
Paint a Picture of the Audience Member Actually Experiencing the Solution.
This last tip will move you into an elite level of speaker. Only the absolute best speakers in the world find this activity natural. However, once you learn how to do this, you will set yourself apart from the average presenter.
Somewhere in your presentation deliver an example of the problem and the solution. The analogy that I like to use is that you give your audience a shovel. Throughout most of the presentation, you allow the audience to dig a huge hole. Then, toward the end, you lower down a ladder to help them get out.
Every time you give an example about a problem the audience experiences, they think, “Yeah, that is a problem.” (They just dug the hole a little deeper.) Or perhaps you give an example of somebody other than them who had some success. They think, “That should be me next time.” (Another shovel-full of dirt.)
Eventually, you lower the ladder. All you really have to do is recap the solutions you already covered in the presentation.
Ultimately, this update reduces keystrokes. That means that you won’t have to reenter the same data over and over again. This also means that those pesky human errors are reduced. That gets our coworkers and our boss off our backs. You also get to spend more quality time doing what you do best — helping customers. By the way, you will also reduce the average call time so every customer interaction is more pleasant. Finally, the increase in survey results will also lead to higher bonuses. That is really what you all want, right?
What audience member is going to disagree with you?