Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, May 2018.
Have you ever been in a meeting with someone who is clearly giving you the same presentation she’s given before to other audiences? There are some telltale signs: a generic set of benefits, little anticipation of objections, a lack of details that speak to your specific situation. Chances are that you tuned out somewhere along the way because you didn’t feel connected to what she was telling you. She wasn’t talking to you after all — she was just talking to a generalized someone.
Connecting with your audience is a key part of persuading your audience. Even if one person is standing up front and speaking for 20 minutes straight, there are ways to make this type of communication feel like a conversation, not a lecture. To do so, you need to show your audience that you respect them, their time, their needs and their challenges. You need to demonstrate that you know your audience.
Now, this is the part of our training workshops at The Latimer Group that we typically get the most pushback on. “I just don’t have time to research and customize every time I have to communicate with an audience.” I hear it all the time. And I get it. We are all pulled in a dozen directions every day. But here’s the thing: You are going to spend that time one way or the other.
Think about it. If you don’t spend the time to think about your audience and gather some intelligence about their needs and challenges, you are less likely to get the outcome you want. Maybe it is a hard no, maybe you have to schedule some follow-up meetings. Either way, you are now going to have to spend time either finding a new direction or refining your argument, which means that you’ll have to do that research you put off in the first place. It’s just ultimately taking up twice as much time for both you and your audience.
What’s more, if you haven’t gotten to know your audience, you are that much more likely to make a mistake — like failing to anticipate a major objection — that will cause you embarrassment and cost you credibility. And you’ve wasted your audience’s time too — another blow to your credibility.
So how do you get to know your audience? The most important thing is to put in some time researching your audience ahead of time. You may already know much of this information, but reflecting on it in an organized way will help solidify your understanding and fold it into your presentation.
Then, be receptive to incorporating new information that comes up during your meeting or phone call. This is much easier to do when you’ve already spent some time thinking about your audience and can quickly respond to updates or changed circumstances.
Remember, much of the time, all you are doing is consolidating what you already know about the audience or gathering easily accessible data and spending a few extra minutes trying to direct your message to their specific needs and challenges. Think about the following:
• Business context: Did their company just experience a significant up or down in their stock price? Has the leadership team been consistent, or have they had turnover recently? What is the organizational dynamic? Are they in a field that is intensely competitive?
• Cultural context: Are there nuances of body language or tone of voice specific to their region or country? Is eye contact seen as connecting to the audience or challenging them? What kind of speaking style — assertive or deferential, direct or tactful — works best?
• Personal context: Think about your audience’s gender, race, age and status within the company. Do they have particular needs that you can speak to? What anecdotes or supporting stories will be most effective? Will they be more receptive to a message that addresses a problem or that presents an opportunity?
Once you are in the meeting or on the phone call, use the following strategies to both gather new information and incorporate it into your presentation:
• Collect: Have a game plan for how you will elicit new information. Will you try to build in five minutes at the beginning for introductions and small talk? Are you going to ask questions of your audience as you speak? Collecting information on the spot makes it more likely that you’ll hear what’s happening right now in your audience’s mind. Cultivate your active listening skills.
• Reflect: Now that you have some new information, think about how to incorporate it into your speech. Refer back to an anecdote someone shared at the beginning or address a concern someone brings up. Saying something like, “Jim, you told me that …” will make your audience feel listened to, demonstrate your respect for their words and make them pay closer attention to what you have to say. (There’s nothing like hearing your own name to make you sit up and focus in a meeting.)
Knowing your audience and demonstrating that knowledge is one of the most effective ways to connect with and persuade them. Taking the time and care to consider their situation, analyze their needs and confront their particular problems not only shows that you are thoughtful, thorough and well-prepared, but also that you respect their time, their process and their context. Respect given almost always becomes respect earned, and the respected speaker more often than not is a successful one.