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8 Techniques to "Know Thy Audience"

We have all heard the maxim "know thyself." In order to give high-impact presentations, it is not only necessary to "know thyself," you also have to "know thy audience." And just because you have worked in the same organization for many years, don't make the unwarranted assumption that you know your audience. The following eight techniques are guaranteed to help you "know thy audience" whether speaking to your staff, peers, senior management, or giving a keynote address to the board of directors and shareholders at your organization's annual general meeting.

The eight techniques are:

  1. Pre-session surveys.

  2. Face-to-face interviews.

  3. Telephone interviews.

  4. Case studies.

  5. Worksite visits.

  6. Job shadowing.

  7. Annual and/or other published reports.

  8. Websites and Internet research.

Pre-Session Surveys

There are two main types of pre-session surveys. The first type is a generalized survey that is used to assess the demographics of the audience. This basic survey is designed to tell you how many people will attend, the ratio of male to female participants, the participants' educational levels, and how homogeneous or heterogeneous the audience is.

The second type of pre-presentation survey yields more detailed information, by asking specific questions to assess the participants' specific learning and/or developmental needs. An example of this type of survey (Figure 1-1) was developed by a pharmaceutical company to help us identify the needs for a course on presentation skills to be given to representatives who call on physicians and hospitals. This survey would help us customize the presentation to be more relevant to the participants' specific needs. While the following example was designed as a pre-presentation survey for presentations seminars, with only minor adjustments you can adapt this example to work for any presentation.


Do you know:

(yes/no)

The strategies used by Master_Presenters?

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Your preferred presentation style and when to use it?

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Your audience's needs, expectations, and level of knowledge of the subject matter?

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How to organize your presentations for impact?

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How to give a dynamic delivery that has in-depth content?

_____

How to create a presentation that is memorable, actionable, and transferable?

_____

How to get genuine commitment by setting mutually beneficial goals? In other words, how to increase the return on investment from the presentation.

_____

(Please write in your answer)
Have you taken a presentation course before?

_____

If so, what did you learn?
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________

What are your expectations for this course?
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________

What would you like the facilitator to focus on?
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________

Are you comfortable giving presentations to your customers or clients in both small and large groups?
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________

What skills, knowledge, or strategies would make it easier for you to obtain a greater return on your investment?
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________

What three challenges do you anticipate in the next three months where well-developed presentations skills would be an asset?

  1. ________________________________________

  2. ________________________________________

  3. ________________________________________

Please feel free to include any additional comments that will help in your learning process.
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________
_____________________________________________



Figure 1-1: PRE-SESSION SURVEY Master Presenters

2 Face-to-Face Interviews

Face-to-face pre-seminar interviews can be incredibly insightful. If you ask the right type of questions, in the right way, and at the right time, you can achieve deeper levels of communication with the audience members with whom you will be speaking.

For example, if your audience consists mostly of IT specialists, you probably want to interview IT specialists to determine their profession-specific issues. Audiences appreciate speakers who show interest in, and knowledge of, their specific issues and concerns. If, however, your audience is very heterogeneous, you may find it desirable to interview a wide variety of individuals at different levels within that organization.

In summary, pre-seminar interviews will not only provide you with relevant information, they also cut down on preparation time, because you will have a much clearer focus on what you need to prepare for. Additionally, you will be much less likely to prepare information that your audience does not need to hear.

There are several advantages of having a written interview protocol: You will have had to think of the questions ahead of time, the questions can often be improved upon after a suitable time of reflection, and you are much less likely to forget to ask an important question during the interview. In addition, if there is an uncomfortable pause in the interview, you know exactly what question to ask next. Lastly, you have the opportunity to test the questionnaire in advance and incorporate any suggestions or corrections. At the same time, you should be flexible enough to add relevant information that the interviewee wants to tell you, and to modify the interview protocol accordingly where it makes sense to do so.

3 Telephone Interviews

Because face-to-face interviews can be time-consuming, the subject may be reluctant to consent to a sit-down interview. When this occurs, consider using telephone interviews. Telephone interviews offer two main advantages: convenience and a perception of anonymity. Of course the concept of anonymity is merely a perception, but the fact is, some people are more "open" in a telephone interview than in a face-to-face interview.

When using telephone interviews, you must concentrate on three things. First, you have to guarantee confidentiality when it is appropriate and/or when the interviewee requests it. This understanding must be considered sacrosanct. If you ever violate a source's trust, your source may never speak with you again. Second, you must be a superb interviewer. Third, you must have the ability to ask "high-yield questions." High-yield questions" result in high-yield answers. Several such high-yield questions are:

  • What was the high point in your team and/or organization during the past year? What was the low point?

  • What challenges is your organization facing this year that you didn't have to face last year?

  • What are the issues or concerns regarding work that keep you up at night?

  • If you could solve one issue, problem, or challenge at work within the next six months, what would it be?

  • What is the biggest missed opportunity that is crying out for a creative solution in your team, department, and/or organization at the present time?

  • What is one issue that no one in your organization is allowed to talk about that should be talked about?

Of course, you need to develop questions that work for you and are germane to the content area of your presentation. If you formulate and ask great questions, you will be amazed at the depth and quality of the information that you will receive. By doing even three or four telephone interviews, you can tailor your presentation so that it is much more likely to hit the mark.

Three is the absolute minimum number of people you should interview. However, by the time you talk to three people, you should have a much better idea of the issues people are facing in their organization. One interview is risky because that one person could either be the most contented or the most unhappy; the most knowledgeable or the least informed of all the employees within that organization. One word of caution: Don't let the attitudes or opinions of one person lead you to an inaccurate perception of the greater audience's needs.

We have found that on rare occasions when we have not taken the time to do this, our presentations can miss the mark. Although this has happened to Brad on only two occasions, those two occasions were two too many. One occasion involved an organization to which Brad frequently presents. Brad assumed that what worked well in two locations of the organization would work in the third, so he did not do any pre-interviews. Unfortunately, this was a false assumption and the presentation did not work very well. Remember, despite the similarities you may think two audiences have, each is composed of unique individuals with unique needs.

4 Case Studies

Case studies also work incredibly well for workshops, skills training sessions, or sessions where your goal is to help your audience solve problems more efficiently and creatively. We gave a workshop on negotiation for the IT department at the head office of a large international organization. Prior to doing the workshop, the participants were told by the head of the training department that submitting a case study was a requirement for attending the training session. The instructions to the participants appear in Figure 1-2.


Guidelines of Effective Case Development

Please write a one- or two-paragraph description about a challenging person and/or situation that you have had to deal with or are currently dealing with at work. The case studies can be anonymous and/or disguised as they will be used during the course to make the course more interesting and applicable to the type of work you and your colleagues do.

Effective cases are inherently interesting ones in which all parties stand to gain or lose depending on the outcome of the case. Effective cases are also ones in which the apparent solutions are not obvious but require collaboration and creative thinking so that optimal rather than sub-optimal solutions are found.

If you have not found a suitable solution, please submit your case anyway. Previous participants have found that their colleagues have contributed many excellent ideas that have led to very good solutions. Other times, the group has decided that Mother Teresa or Gandhi could not have done a better job, and the person who submitted the case could rest easier knowing that some of life's problems do not have ready solutions.



Figure 1-2: PARTICIPANT INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF CASE STUDIES

Brad found that reviewing the participants' case studies gave him an in-depth sense of the type of problems that needed to be negotiated. Because the case studies were relevant to everyone in the room, he also gained a great deal of credibility. First, the case studies were real issues and problems that the participants had to face in their everyday work life. Second, the participants learned how to apply the course materials to actual real-life examples that they had to face, which thereby increased the transfer of training. Third, they could also determine if the problem in the case study was a problem in individual skill development or where or to what degree the problem was a systems problem, that is to say, how much of the problem had its origins in the organization's procedures, organizational structure, or climate and culture.

As a trainer, facilitator, or presenter, you can sense the energy level in the room increase when the participants' case studies are introduced. Having the case studies submitted in advance helps the trainer better determine which ones would be most appropriate to use and also where in the program or course would be the best place to use them in terms of the theory and/or course content that is being presented.

If you are not giving a workshop or a training session, you still might want to ask the participants to submit brief case studies (a paragraph or less) because they will still give you insight into the issues or dynamics of the organization, and this too will give you an opportunity to make sure that your speech or presentation hits the mark.

5 Worksite Visits

Worksite visits can also give you a feeling for the participants' work environment. Brad has gone 3,000 feet underground to prepare for an address to a group of miners. He also had the opportunity to speak to a group of participants who worked on an oil rig. Visiting the rig was very instructive and allowed Brad to tailor his presentation much more specifically to that particular audience.

Similarly, David has spoken for Volvo at its headquarters plant in Gothenburg, Sweden. Because it was in a country and a culture different from those he had experienced previously, he found that a tour of the facility proved helpful in relating his message to his audience. It provided him with a glimpse of the audience's work environment and he was able to include a few "local" references in his talk.

6 Job Shadowing

Job shadowing means that you go to the worksite to observe individuals as they work. As a result, the presenter can gain a good idea of what the employees do, and how they go about it. When securing permission to observe, you may also want to obtain permission to interview individuals as they do their work or as soon as possible after they have completed their work. For example, Brad prepared a presentation for the City of Halifax Police Department by getting permission to go on an evening patrol with one of the officers. Although he had seen many high-speed chases on TV, he wasn't prepared for what it felt like. Nor was he prepared for what it would be like to drive through one of the "worst" parts of the city being seen as a police officer. This experience helped prepare Brad for his presentation better than any face-to-face interview with even the most articulate police officer ever could have.

7 Annual and/or Other Published Reports

Annual and other published reports are another way to get valuable information about the company or organization you will be working with in advance of your presentation. There may be an issue that the company or organization has raised that you could contribute to through your presentation. Likewise, there may be something in the vision, mission statement, and strategic goals and challenges that could add a great deal of value to the presentation.

8 Websites and Internet Research

Having an accurate, informative, and up-to-date Website is a necessity in today's competitive business environment. Therefore, the prospective speaker can get some very good information, both directly and indirectly, about an organization. This information can also help in planning an organizational survey or face-to-face or telephone interview more precisely because you will have a better idea of what to ask. In other words, sometimes a combination of methods can bring about the best results.

If you do not have the internet skills to help you get the information you need, you can learn them easily by using various search engines such as Google. You could also consider paying someone (perhaps one of your children or a high school or university student) to do research on the internet. Lastly, don't overlook your local library—librarians are professionals trained in information retrieval and search strategies. We can't begin to tell you how helpful they have been to us and can be to you.

Knowing your audience is just the start. You will also need to align what you know about your audience with six critical variables that can affect how receptive that audience will be to your message.


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