Some enchanted evening... You may see a stranger Across a crowded room...
—South Pacific, "Some Enchanted Evening"
Don't let the audience in your crowded room be strangers. Find out all you can ahead of time and keep reading the room until you say, "Thank you." It is both your right and responsibility to know the many aspects of your audience.
Because the audience, numbering one to a thousand, is the most important part of a conversation, learn everything you can about the demographics or makeup of the audience ahead of time from whomever arranged the meeting. What city will you be in? What age or age range is your audience? Do they have families of their own? What are their interests? Did they have to pay for this out of their own or their comapnies' pockets? What is the ratio of: sexes, religions, politics, professions, management, staff, etc.?
To paraphrase the five Ws and the H of journalism: Who are they? What do they care about? Where do they come from? When did they decide to attend? Why did they come? And how do you want them to feel about you, your issue, your honoree, etc.?
What are they ready to hear? What insight can you give them? What values, experiences, or goals do you have in common? NOT in common? What do you want them to do as a result of what you've said?
If you don't know who is in your audience and can't find out ahead of time because you don't want to bother a grieving family, have just arrived in the city, or were asked at the last minute, then make a calculated guess. Who would come to this event? Why? Was it required or optional? What unique perspective do you bring? What does this audience want and need from you?
Sometimes, you guess wrong. Once, an audience of fellow alums that I spoke to at Purdue University didn't really want or need what I offered them.
When asked to be the MCs and just "be funny," my co-hostess and I decided to create a mock Academy Awards show and host it as the movie characters Thelma and Louise. Since the movie's screenwriter, Callie Khouri, was also a Purdue alum who had won an Academy Award for her film, her first screenwriting effort, we were at the right place but the wrong time. The average age of the audience turned out to be 73!
Despite the fact that we opened with a film clip of the movie, the audience just didn't know or care who Thelma and Louise were! It may sound cold or selfish, but audiences always listen to the radio station WII-FM (What's In It For Me?).
How can they justify spending the time? What gift do they need from you? How will their experience of this event be better, different, more interesting, entertaining, or enlightening with, than without, you and your words?
Knowing your audience is more than just demographics. It's knowing as much as you can about its circumstances, too. Is the company expanding, or is everyone in fear for their positions? What's happened to the stock price in the last day, week, or year?
From circumstances, you can take the next and perhaps most important step, be prepared to gauge the audience's mood. Are people bantering when they come in? How do they sit in the chairs — waiting or talking among themselves? Are they comfortable in each other's company? How's business? Are opportunities expanding or contracting? Is it a mixed crowd: managers and staff, doctors and lawyers? This is the most challenging because you can't know the mood until you get there. Read that by the way they engage one another or fail to. Are they smiling at each other and at you OR are peoples' eyes cast downward looking at their shoes, or the ceiling? Are their legs and arms crossed, defensively? Somehow, you must get around that.
This is where knowing good technique and having an adaptive sense of humor comes into play. As the presenter, the leader if you will, you must adapt.
Conversely, is it a fluid or adaptable audience? If audience members are the least bit interested, they will help to shape the presentation to their liking, which will give the presentation more effect.
In a hit titled "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" the group Chicago went on to ask, "Does anybody really care, about time?"
You should, when it comes to addressing an audience. If it's 8 a.m. on Monday or 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon, you have different challenges. It is said that 10 a.m. Tuesday morning is the business person's best moment of the week, so seize the day and schedule something important, such as your presentation, if possible!
Is it a flat floor with a low or high podium? Is there a stage? How easily accessible is it to the audience?
A former Republican senator from North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole very effectively broke precedent when she nominated her husband, Bob Dole, for president at the 1996 Republican National Convention. To most everyone's surprise, she left the podium, walked into the audience, and roamed the aisles, with the words, "Now, you know tradition is that speakers at the Republican National Convention remain at this very imposing podium. But tonight I'd like to break with tradition for two reasons — one, I'm going to be speaking to friends. Secondly, I'm going to be speaking about the man I love. And it's just a lot more comfortable for me to be down here with you."
No one fell asleep on Liddy Dole that night, everyone was glued. But what happens if someone is falling asleep, whispering to his neighbor, or not paying attention? The set-up of the room becomes very important at that time. Stand in front of the offender and continue talking. Every time someone begins to nod off or whisper, stand right in front of him and keep speaking.
The audience is the other half of your conversation. It's best to involve audience members through acknowledgement, laughter, and poignancy; by name or participation. Learning how to use an audience is the single biggest key to success in a workshop or presentation. Here are some do's and don'ts.
What do you know about your audience? Why are these people important to you as the speaker and why are you and the subject important to them?
In short, what does the audience want or need to know? You will be most successful if you know your audience. Bottom line: The secret to being interesting to audiences is being interested in them.