I work with a wide variety of speakers, from professionals who want to polish their approach to make it as top-notch as possible, to executives who are hoping to add a little charisma to their personas, to students just beginning their journey of self-expression along the public speaking dimension.

Some of those speakers start becoming anxious about the public speaking event to come weeks beforehand, growing more and more nervous as the day gets closer, only to hit peak terror minutes before they start to speak. Others suffer a little anxiety a week prior, perhaps lose a little sleep the night before, but quickly hit their stride once they’re fairly launched in the presentation. Some may even claim to enjoy the activity, for the most part, calling the nerves ‘excitement’ and enjoying the adrenaline rush that goes with those nerves.

The range is wide, and unfairly distributed.

The irony in all this nervousness is that all speakers hope to connect with their audiences, and yet the stage fright itself separates speaker from audience completely.

Audiences may be a little excited, or a little bored, but you’d have to look hard to find an audience member who is nervous on behalf of the speaker. Perhaps a close friend, or spouse, or a meeting planner who has some stake in the speech going well.

So while the speaker is working up a fine foam of fear, the audience is thinking about something else entirely: what’s in it for me? Philosophers and poets throughout the ages have lamented the essential incommensurability of humanity – a long word meaning we don’t know what’s in each other’s heads. But nowhere is this unknowing more pronounced than the chasm between speaker and audience.

What’s in it for me?

The audience wants to get something out of the presentation – a useable idea, a takeaway, a new perspective, a life-changing connection, a laugh, a bit of fun in the shape of a great story. Expectations and hopes vary, but the audience fundamentally doesn’t want its time wasted. It wants either enlightenment or entertainment.

Most speakers are so busy dealing with their fears that their efforts at connection with the audience are fatally hampered by those fears, and they fail to ask themselves the only important question: What does the audience want – what’s in it for them?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re not ready to connect with them.

Worse, whatever you do say won’t be remembered for long, if at all, because it turns out that we remember things according to how important they are to us. In fact, a recent study found that people remember three times as much information if they perceive that it is related closely to them than if they don’t.

So if you’re getting ready to deliver an important presentation, begin with the question of what’s in it for the audience. How can you shape your material to be relevant to that particular group of people?

If you can understand how they think, if you can get into their heads, then you’re far down the road to creating memorable material that will matter to them and change their lives.

And if you do this work imaginatively and well, then you might also shift your nervousness from wherever it is on the spectrum to closer to the fun end. Because if you understand what’s in it for the audience you’ll be secure in the knowledge that your speech is relevant to that audience and they’re interested in hearing you speak.

It’s not about you. It’s about the audience. If you can make that shift of perspective, then most of your stage fright will go away. Not all of it, but a good deal of it, because you will have genuinely connected with that audience, and your aligned interests will support you in your efforts.

What’s in it for me? It’s not about you; it’s about the audience. Figure out what the audience’s perspective is and you will be able to deliver a great, world-changing speech.

We’ll work on figuring out what your audience wants at our one-day workshop on powerful public speaking in Boston on April 22nd. There are still a few places left, so sign up here!


  1. Yes, everything you said, absolutely. And I would add that the source of stage fright is worrying about oneself. The speaker is worried about things like: How am I coming across? Am I well-received? Do they like me? Am I doing, or about to do, anything stupid? How will I be remembered? — all questions that drive up adrenaline levels.

    So not only do we need to think about the audience and what’s in it for them to improve the connection with them, but doing so takes the focus off “moi,” the source of fear.

  2. One of your most important articles on communication. WIIFT is one of the foundations that must be mastered before working on anything else.

  3. I don’t go to hear a speaker to be entertained. I go for, as you stated so eloquently, ‘a useable idea, a takeaway, a new perspective, a life-changing connection.’ I want to learn and grow. Otherwise, it’s not worth my time.

    1. Thanks, Eva. People split along the entertainment v instruction line. Some want more of one or the other. My personal preference is with you — teach me something!

    1. We need a new Pink Floyd album! Can you make that happen in some alt-fan-boy-fantasy-football universe (given that most of the band has passed on to the great Music Wall in the Sky)?

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