When I’m working with clients, we always start, not with them, but with their audience. Sometimes clients find this a bit surprising, because like many first-time authors, when you ask them who their audience is, they’ll say, “Why, everyone!”
That’s a mistake. It shows you haven’t thought deeply enough about yourself and your message. None of us has something deep, profound, and life-changing to say to all of us. Humor doesn’t translate, life-experiences are too varied, and not everyone needs to be helped in the way you want to help.
Nonetheless, to a consultant with a hammer, as the saying goes, every client looks like a nail. So the first job of creating a world-class, world-changing speech is to figure out who your audience is – and isn’t.
And one of the nice surprises about that work is that the more deeply you connect with a specific slice of humanity, the more you connect, at least a little, with everyone. I know, a paradox. But begin by going deep, and then – slowly, carefully – go wide.
What does that mean in practice? It means that we need to research your audience as thoroughly as we can, in order to make sure that you’re solving problems they actually have, rather than just preaching your particular expertise at them.
And it’s best to begin this research, if possible, with a specific presentation in mind. Not only does the upcoming deadline help you focus, but also the specificity of a time, place, and group of people helps you get to the level of detail you need.
But the research should go well beyond the standard questions of how many, their demographics, and the time of day. Of course, for that first upcoming speech, you do want to know whether they’ve been fed recently, or whether they’re looking forward to a meal. You do want to know if you’re after-dinner entertainment or a keynoter first thing in the morning. And you do want to know if there are going to be 100 people or a thousand. You need to know all the practical issues associated with the audience, the venue, and the occasion that you can collect, because all of them affect how you can successfully talk to that audience.
But the most important questions to ask are, what do they want — what are their hopes and dreams — and what are they afraid of. Your speech should be about helping them realize their dreams and triumph over their fears. We humans all want the same things at a sufficiently high level – food and safety, meaningful work, love, and a healthy life until we shuffle off this mortal coil – but that, once said, doesn’t tell us very much. We need to go into much more detail in order to connect with the audience effectively. Think of how differently candidates approach what is, after all, the same set of voters during an election. Clearly those candidates are convinced that they know best who those voters are, what their challenges are, and what will push them to pull the right lever on election day.
The connection you achieve with your audience is profound and emotional – when it works. When it doesn’t, everyone’s time has been wasted.
Understanding your audience means being able to go on a significant emotional journey with them. That’s the only journey worth taking in public speaking.