Men are not against you. They are merely for themselves.
- Gene Fowler
Picture this: You're on an expedition to climb Mt. Everest. You're leaving base camp when you hear a thunderous noise. Avalanche! The head Sherpa turns to you and your fellow climbers and says, "You may not know this, but I've been a Sherpa for many years. My group was the only one to survive the last avalanche that hit this mountain. This is what we did to make it out alive...."
How would you listen to what this Sherpa had to say? Very carefully. Why? Because he is meeting the needs of his audience.
I once heard a woman at a conference give a speech on what new associations could do to grow, prosper, and be valuable to members. She had an audience that really cared about the topic; people had signed up for it specifically. She meandered, went off on tangents, and seldom finished a thought. She said "you know" about 75 times in a 45-minute presentation. But because she met the needs of members of her audience, she got a standing ovation. They felt she cared about them and understood what interested them. That's how important it is to be tuned in to your audience. If you are, even a poorly delivered speech can be well received; if you're not, even a polished one can fall flat.
A surprising number of speeches simply don't meet the real needs of the audience. The chief reason: The speaker feels it's enough to tell people something the speaker thinks they need to know.
In one of my many previous careers, I was a school teacher in New York City. It didn't take long for me to realize that if I didn't make information meaningful to my students, they tuned me out almost immediately. I couldn't give them a list of boring principles; everything I taught had to be relevant to their lives. So, for instance, when I taught the subject of group discussions, I asked them to play out a scenario. I told them that they were with a group of five friends trying to decide what to do on a particular Saturday night. How would they make a decision? Would one person turn out to have more influence than the others? How could they be sure everyone in the group had a say? The kids had fun with the exercise and - whether they knew it or not - learned the principles I was trying to get across.
But you can't expect your audience to have the same excitement that you do; you must develop the audience's interest. No matter how worthy, life-enhancing, or even lifesaving your topic may be, your enthusiasm is not enough. You must make those in your audience enthusiastic. They are potential skeptics, and your task is to win them over. Because you can't say everything there is to say on your topic, you need to say the things your audience needs to hear.
Winning listeners over is easier if you know the four things people find most interesting: sex, health, money, and themselves. This is somewhat of a cynic's list, but most good speeches will tap into one of the things, usually the last item.
Because people do things for their own reasons, you must motivate and inspire people from their perspectives, not yours. If you speak to their real needs, they will be compelled to listen, and listen well. In my own seminars and speeches, I always find out one or two specific problems that the audience currently faces. Then I construct a speech that solves - or shows people how to solve - those problems. This is the speaker as hero or heroine, the problem-solver approach, and I recommend it highly. If you're speaking to middle managers on running their departments more efficiently, and you determine that one of their problems is motivating clerical employees, then give them a strategy to do just that, with results that tie in to what the corporation expects of them.
Whether your audience is one person or one thousand, you should focus on its needs. Being successful in one-on-one situations requires you to focus on the other person. Start any general communication by putting yourself in that other person's shoes and proceed from there.
Addressing problems your audience faces illustrates the importance of context. So does this story: Suppose you came to a seminar and, instead of the promised speaker, you were met by a desert survival expert. You probably would not listen too closely. But if the pilot of a plane being forced to land in the desert gave that lecture, you would view that formerly irrelevant information quite differently. Context is caring - what does your audience care about? Figure that out, and you're well on your way.
Speakers should always be motivated by their desire to please the audience; audiences are motivated by their own self-interest. Both forms of self-interest come together well if you realize that every person you're talking to is thinking, "Why should I care about this speech?" Everyone has a secret radio station called WIIFM, otherwise known as "What's In It For Me?" An effective speaker anticipates this built-in bias and shapes a speech by always thinking, "What benefit or benefits can I offer this particular audience?"
You sell an audience with benefits, not facts. To use the old expression, you buy a drill not for the drill but for the hole it will make. A ballpoint pen has a retractable point (fact), so you don't get ink on you (benefit). But be careful of just throwing benefits at your audience; the connection between the product and the benefit - in this case the retractable point - must always be clear, because that's often the item or outlook you are trying to promote. Never assume that the members of the audience will make the connection themselves.
At first glance, this advice may sound cynical: People are so narrow-minded that everything must be fed to them in terms of self-interest. Not everything; just your speech. Think about it from this perspective: As a speaker, you are taking up people's time; you are asking them to listen closely to you for a period of time and to think hard about what you are saying. It may be cynical (and practical) to appeal to their needs, but it's also polite. They are giving you their time; you must respond with something worthy of that honor. In the end, everyone benefits, especially you, because you will have succeeded in making your points in a vivid, convincing, and memorable fashion.
You connect best with your audience by using a combination of facts and feelings. We need facts to get the information across. But we also need an emotional component, because every communication is trying to get someone to buy something - whether it's something tangible (such as a product or service), or intangible (such as an idea or principle).
How do you combine facts and feelings? By appealing to both left- and right-brain functions. When you state the facts, you're appealing to your listeners' left brains. When you state feelings, you're appealing to the right sides of their brains. In sales terms, facts and feelings are known as features and benefits. Features appeal to the intellectual, detail-oriented part of the brain. No one would buy an air conditioner, for instance, on its features alone. It's a big gray box that fits into a window. But it's benefit - that it cools you off on a hot summer's day - makes it worth an investment.
Features stay the same for everyone: A big gray box is a big gray box. But benefits change for different people. One person might need an air conditioner to cool off the room, while another might need it to provide clean air for an asthmatic child. It's important to know your listeners' needs so that you can emphasize the benefits that are most important to them.
In workshops, one of the first things I do is ask the participants what they can gain by becoming a better speaker. They give me a variety of answers, but the three that come up the most are the "three Cs": Confidence, Credibility, and Cash. With these benefits in mind, it's easy to motivate them on to success.
By addressing the needs of the people in your audience, you are involving them in your speech. The more you can make them participants and not passive listeners, the more effective you will be. By participants I don't mean people who bombard you during a question-and-answer session, but people who are thinking, reacting, and taking mental notes as you speak. Here are seven steps that help instill the participation that leads to the persuasion that occurs when the audience follows your argument and actually accepts your ideas:
Prepare your speech with care, so your listeners will know you care about them and their needs.
Make the audience want to hear you; devise an intriguing, startling opening and a title you know will fit that audience.
Present your ideas dramatically with stories, examples, and facts. You want people to remember what you say, and the support stories provide goes a long way toward making your speech vivid.
Show how those ideas affect the people in your audience and what the benefits are. They now have the facts - you've supplied them. Now bridge the gap between your words and their lives. If you want your department to make formal use of job descriptions when hiring, tell them why: how these documents will help them find qualified people, save time, work more efficiently with the personnel department, and so on.
Use language's most appealing words: discovery, easy, guaranteed, health, love, money, new, proven, results, safety, save, and you.
Draw them in; ask the listeners to study or contemplate these ideas further. Involve them. Show them your ideas have a relevant context; they aren't just your private, unsubstantiated thoughts.
Ask the audience to act on your ideas. The best speeches carry over - into petitions, changed minds, reorganizations, elections, new ways of doing things.
Your end can be the point where you reveal that formerly hidden purpose that guided your speech from the beginning. But it was never meant to be kept a secret. By the end of your speech, you should have built the logic, the facts, and the stories to such a point that no one doubts your commitment. Now you are trying to enlist the troops.
I do a lot of consulting work with large corporations such as Verizon, Paine Webber, UBS, Duke Energy, and Pfizer. More often than not, executives there, who have to make presentations, assume they can just give the facts, however technical, because their audience is technically inclined.
Don't make the same mistake; don't assume benefits are irrelevant to a technical presentation or that they are readily apparent. They often aren't, as they lie buried in technical jargon. Making the benefits link is seldom stating the obvious; instead, it results in clarity and persuasion.
Technical speakers also often assume a level of expertise - or vocabulary - in the audience that is just too high. Play it safe and never let your audience's level of education trick you into thinking you don't have to define your terms, make good analogies, and clarify benefits. I once gave a talk to a high-level management group - or so I was told. I had prepared a speech that I thought would also be suitably high-level, but it quickly became apparent that my audience - mostly professional staff and new to management - wasn't following me. I quickly adjusted the speech before I had lost the audience's interest entirely.
As a speaker you are a salesperson, and the item you're pushing is information. Your audience might be temporarily captive, but it isn't converted. You can sell your information more effectively if you remember that people buy for emotional reasons, not factual ones. When you do give facts, try to tie them to the emotional needs of your audience.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered that all people have a hierarchy of needs, which rank from the most basic to the loftiest: physiological (sheer survival), security, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization (those rare moments when what we are doing and who we are seems exactly right). To sell through your speech or presentation you should keep these needs in the back of your mind, for they underlie the more obvious reasons people make decisions.
Here is by no means an exhaustive list of 25 reasons why people are persuaded to buy or say yes to something. You'll see that most relate directly to one of Maslow's steps in the hierarchy. Ask yourself if your speech ties in to at least one of these emotional needs:
To make money.
To save money.
To save time.
To avoid effort.
To gain comfort.
To improve health.
To escape pain.
To be popular.
To attract the opposite sex.
To gain praise.
To conserve our possessions.
To increase our enjoyment.
To satisfy curiosity.
To protect our family.
To be in style.
To satisfy an appetite.
To emulate others.
To have beautiful things.
To avoid criticism.
To avoid trouble.
To take advantage of opportunities.
To be individual and unique.
To protect our reputation.
To gain control over aspects of our lives.
To be safe.
You're trying to appeal to the members of your audience. Who are they? Generally speaking, they have needs, goals, troubles, and short attention spans. But what are those needs, goals, and troubles? Start your audience research by asking the questions in the Audience Analysis on page 98.
More than anything, a well-prepared speaker is aware, not only of the audience's quirks and concerns, but also of the larger picture: how current events may affect the presentation, or what preconceived notions the members of the audience might have of the speaker's topic or reputation. But don't make the mistake of assuming your audience has knowledge about recent events such as the Korean War or the Vietnam War; a growing number of young people don't remember the assassination of President Kennedy because they were born after it. It's a fine line to walk: Although you shouldn't overestimate what your audience knows, you can't underestimate its knowledge, either.
Once you have constructed a speech that truly addresses your audience's needs, you're ready to add the basics - an opening, transitions, and a conclusion - that reinforce the importance of the material you are giving them.
You are making a pitch for a raise. List three facts as to why you deserve it; along with the facts, list the benefits that your boss will enjoy by granting it.
Imagine you are a Jeep salesperson. Divide a sheet of paper into two columns. Head one column Features, the other one Benefits. List four features of your vehicle. For each feature, list at least one benefit. For example, if you list a convertible top as a feature, list the benefits along side it.
Audience's major needs, problems, concerns at this moment:
Subject knowledge and vocabulary level: ______________________
Their relationship to me as speaker: __________________________
Level of education: ________________________________________
Sex; Ratio of men to women: _______________________________
Ethnic background: _______________________________________
Audience size: ___________________________________________
Any special interests or purpose of meeting? __________________
Political persuasion: ______________________________________
Special organization projects and current events: ________________
Are there any other speakers before or after me on the program? ____
Will there be drinking or eating before my speech? _______________
Have other speakers addressed this audience on a similar topic? ____
Audience's reaction? _______________________________________________
What has audience responded to most positively? _________________
What has audience responded to least positively? _________________
What data and support will persuade my audience (for example, statistics, anecdotes, demonstrations, or colorful visuals)?
Below is a questionnaire I have found works very well with clients who hire me to speak. Whether you have someone fill it out, or you research the information yourself, all of these questions should be answered before you face your audience.
This questionnaire is designed to help us prepare a program specifically suited to the needs of your group. Please take a moment to answer fully all the questions and return the form to our office. Thank you for your help!
Special Request: Please send all available printed material on your company, division, employees, and product/service line.
(If additional space is needed, use a blank sheet of paper and attach it to this questionnaire.)
What is the theme of your meeting?
What are the top three challenges or problems faced by the members of your group?
What, approximately, are the characteristics of your average member?
Age: ____________ Occupation: ___________________
Sex: ____________ Annual Personal Income: _________
Educational background: _______________________________________
Will there be any special guests? Please explain:
How many people will be in the audience? __________
Why is your group attending this meeting? _____________
How will they be notified?__________________________
What is their overall opinion regarding the subject, for example, favorable, hostile, etc.?
What three facts should I know about your group before addressing them?
What speakers have you used in the recent past and what did they discuss?
What programs/speakers have been most enthusiastically received?
Please list the names and positions of three people in the organization who are well known and well liked within the group, who will be present at the speech, and who I can joke with or call on if the need arises.
Name __________________________ Position ________________________
Name __________________________ Position ________________________
Name __________________________ Position ________________________
What are the three most significant events to have occurred in your industry, or within your group, during the past year?
Please share with me any "local color" you can think of relating to the location where my speech will be held.
Please share with me any "industry color" you can think of relating to your organization or industry.
Specifically, what are you trying to accomplish at this meeting?
What are your specific objectives for my part of the meeting?
Are there any issues/topics in particular that you think I should discuss during the program?
Are there any issues/topics that you think I should avoid during the program?
Do you have any suggestions to help me make this presentation the best your audience has ever heard?