Target Your Audience: 3 Ways to Win at Speaking in Public

This post is written for paid professional speakers but the tips below apply just as well to business presentations.

I’d bet that you could be a pretty good speaker.  You may even be one now.  Say your prayers, practice every day, and repeat motivational self-talk and you’ll get a standing-O every time you speak before a group, right?  Wrong!  The days of giving the same talk to audiences repeatedly and getting laudatory reviews are gone for all but the celebrity orator.  You and I, business presenter or professional speaker, will have to do what every other businessperson is learning the hard way to do in the global economy—customize.  That’s right, each talk must be specifically tailored to the group you’re speaking to.

There is a great deal of latitude in interpreting what the word customize means relative to speaking, so let me quickly tell you what it is not:

a)      putting a new title page with the organization logo on your standard slide show,

b)      cracking a joke or two using the group’s name (“Did you hear the one about the HR professional who had to change a light bulb?”),

c)      thanking the outfit’s president for the opportunity in your greeting, and

d)     inserting the group’s member category instead of “person” in your examples (“Most electricians put on their socks first and then their shoes.”).

You’ve probably seen all of these “customizations” before, and if you were in the audience you probably felt royally screwed, justifiably so.

Audiences are more sophisticated than ever.  Like Olympic athletes, today’s speakers are raising the bar using technology and theatre to gain a competitive edge.  The crowd is used to good.  Fortunately for you, one way to be seen as great is to talk about the audience’s favorite topic—them.  That’s the customization part.  The higher your billing (on the marquee and the bank account), the more customization you need.  You can’t just put them into your stories, you’d better be telling their stories.  That’s the way to establish a true connection with the audience.  To talk about them you have to know them, and that’s called pre-program research.  Here are three great ways to get it done.

Pre-Program Survey

Before every speaking program that I do, I send the meeting planner a pre-program questionnaire for the show.  For keynote, motivational-type talks I have a long version and for training seminars, a shorter version will do.  That’s because seminar attendees are there to hear your high-content and participate, so tailoring isn’t as crucial in most cases (excepting customized training based on Myers-Briggs tests, for instance).

Some professional speakers take it to an additional level by providing questionnaires to the entire audience in advance using multiple choice answers.  They can then use the data in their presentations, showing the profile of the audience and a comparison to other groups.  That’s research.  In either case, what you’re looking for is the value perceptions of each person (or at least a decent sampling, especially the meeting planner), such as what does he perceive his three biggest challenges are at present, or how would he run the company if he had the reigns.  It’s extremely important to get information from not only the president and officers of the group or company, but also the rank and file.  There could be a dramatic difference between the two worldviews.

Facts Research

You don’t need the meeting planner for this because you have two free sources of information about almost any group you present to—the public library and the Internet.  Your contact can, however, shorten the time you put into the effort.  At a minimum you want to get the organization’s newsletter, if available, and any other information about their mission, goals, accomplishments, etc.  If the group has a website, be sure to check it out to learn valuable stuff.  Publicly traded companies have information about them all over the web in places like or Dunn and Bradstreet, and their annual reports are available if you call them.  During your presentation, sprinkle in key facts that support points you are making in the talk.  You’ll look like a genius.

Personal Interviews

Here’s the really fun part, because it’s where you learn the really fun stuff.  Your pre-program questionnaire should ask for the phone numbers of at least three, more like five to seven, movers and shakers in the organization.  Call these people up and verify some of the points of view and facts you obtained in the first two research methods.  Make adjustments as dictated by the consensus of the interviewees.  Get quotes recognizable to the members of the group or company employees.  Ask for any humorous stories (usually embarrassing) that are public knowledge with the whole gang.  If a person is on the receiving end of the humor, make sure you have her permission to use the tale.  Just like with fact research, don’t just throw stuff into the talk, but use what you can to make your point.  Who will disagree?  You’re using their examples!

I once used a story about an association officer who was an amateur pilot.  One day coming back from lobbying in Harrisburg, PA for his association, he and his passenger got lost in a dense fog.  The wayward pair finally realized they were over a military base when an F-16 fighter jet buzzed their Cessna.  I put a humorous slide (self-made, I might add) into the presentation when I told this story, and the audience roared with approval and laughter.  This story wouldn’t have gotten a smirk from another group, but for this one, it hit a grand slam.

It’s a funny thing about today’s audiences.  They don’t expect perfection in technique anymore.  You can utter a few “uhmms” and “ahhs”, even use notes on occasion like I heard in an address from Alan Parisse, one of Successful Meetings magazine’s top 21 rated speakers entering the 21st century.  You can even talk too fast and put your hand in your pocket and you will be forgiven.  God help the speaker, though, who doesn’t personalize the speech to the audience.  That’s become as expected as signature ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s.  You’re trying to hit a moving target when shooting for an audience’s approval, so relax, stay flexible, and customize your way into speaking success.

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