It’s amazing to me how many people go into a presentation without any prior knowledge of their audience.
Doing the homework will reduce uncertainty; increase your confidence; help you to steer the content, tone and style; and increase the chances of a successful outcome.
Even people who do a lot of presentations can become complacent about this.
Having a formal checklist to work-through helps. This one might give you a starting point for a checklist more accurately tailored to your circumstances.
1. What do you need your audience to know? (Not necessarily the same as ‘what are you going to tell them?’, particularly in a nuanced or politicised environment, or where you aren’t supposed to be overtly selling. Sometimes the key message is best delivered by subtext). How receptive will be they be to your key messages?
2. Are your audience members in a decision-making cycle (influenced by markets, seasons, political or economic considerations, shareholder behaviour etc)? Understand the cycles and how the timing and content of your presentation plays into that.
3. Are they decision makers, or decision influencers? Budget holders? Key opinion leaders?
4. What is the status of audience members (or, possibly more importantly, what do they perceive their status to be)? How does their perceived status compare to yours? Should you play to their status or are these people not status conscious? Would they be embarrassed at overdone status recognition, or would they expect it or perhaps be flattered by it? For certain types of presentation, you may not want to flatter them – but make a conscious decision about it. How humble should you be?
5. What’s their emotional starting point? Are they neutral, hostile, supportive, disinterested, uninterested, resistant, enthusiastic, hungry, angry, resentful, bored or conscripted? Are they jealous (“we should be doing this presentation”) or competitive (“not invented here” syndrome)? Do they see attendance as a grudge chore or a major privilege? What ‘baggage’ are they bringing? Are they prejudiced, do they have belief systems or networks that will act for or against you? What do you know of their previous behaviour and how does that inform you about their likely reaction to you? Human beings are complex and in many cases people may have a mixture of these emotions – but think about it, and how it impacts on what you say and how you say it.
6. What is their existing knowledge base? Are you giving them new information? Should you be? (Presentations which simply rehash assumed knowledge seldom excite anyone). Underestimating an audience’s pre-existing knowledge of a topic and coming across as patronising is a big mistake; even if an audience doesn’t have a lot of knowledge, does it think that it does? If so, your approach should be diplomatically adjusted to take that into account.
7. What is their perception of you? Do they know you, or know of you? Do they think you’re expert, an idiot, eccentric, fascinating, famous, exciting, a nobody? Do they think you’re there to make up the numbers, as a poor replacement for a speaker who couldn’t make it, or as a major attraction? Are you a serious contender, a voice of conservative caution, a risk-taker, a radical? How does that impact your presentation’s content (and possibly your opening remarks)? Do you want to support or challenge their pre-existing view of you? Don’t leave that to chance – consciously think about it and let it influence your presentation.
8. How will this particular audience absorb information best? Are you going to just throw facts at them, inject some humour, be chatty or dry, formal or informal?
9. Does the audience include specialists? Does it include people who have specialist knowledge in some areas greater than your own? Do they see themselves as your superior, or your peer? Are they likely to be in a mindset to learn from you? Whatever the answers, how are you going to deal with that?
10. Do some members of the audience have special needs? I’m not talking about wheelchair access or assistance with hearing (though you should obviously think about that), but their special interests.
Knowing something about your audience will make your presentation more effective, and take you out of ‘stab in the dark’ territory. The web can help – it can often tell you what previous speakers have said to the same group, and possibly even how they were received. For smaller audiences, you can often check people out on LinkedIn or other social media.
Professional event organisers will also be very helpful (they want the presentation to be successful).
I’ll be publishing more on presentation skills in due course – and you can learn more about me at www.bluerockfox.com. If you'd like to discuss presentation skills training for you or your company, get in touch!