You’re a smart, experienced professional with a depth of expertise and a range of experience that is exhaustive and the envy of those around you.
So when you’re asked to speak at a conference or to share your knowledge with a group of colleagues or clients, you look forward to sharing as much as you can about the aspects of your expertise and experience you think are important and interesting. Because more is better. More is greater value. More makes you look like a rock star.
And while you’re sharing all that MORE, your audience is trying not to drown from the well-intentioned content fire hose you’ve pointed at them.
These are two of the most common mistakes I see business leaders make when they are asked to share their expertise:
- They try to share way too much; and
- They talk about stuff they find fascinating and important and they share too much technical detail.
Both of these missteps have the same source – a lack of knowledge about the audience. And both of these missteps both produce the same painful outcome: irrelevance. And there is nothing worse than being the irrelevant, boring blowhard. Or a nerdy technocrat with no apparent appreciation for reality. No one asks those guys to come back.
So, how do you deliver an engaging, relevant talk? It might seem counterintuitive but you have to start with the audience. Not with your deep well of knowledge and expertise but with your audience and what’s important to them. Here are the questions I always get my clients thinking about:
- What are the top 3 – 5 pressing questions, pain points or desires your audience has?
What are the sweat-inducing, stay-awake-at-night issues in their role/business?
If you’re not crystal clear on these key issues, you’ve got homework to do. Only when you know what your audience cares about will you be able to focus your talk and go selectively narrower and deeper, the hallmark qualities of a relevant and engaging presentation.
So, how do you figure out what your audience wants, especially if you’ve been asked to speak to a group you don’t know very well?
Ask them. It seems incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised how few speakers ask the organizer, client or even members of their audience what they care about. They think they need to divine these truths. Not so. Most organizers, clients or audience members will be happy to talk to you about their broader business challenges and the issues they’re dealing with that relate to your specific expertise. In fact, they’re usually delighted to tell you all about it because it helps you help them. Think about the people who have a vested interest in your talk being a great success; they are your advocates and a great source of audience insight.
Talk to people in your network who are like your audience. If you can’t talk to people in or working on behalf of your audience, think about the people in your own network who are like your audience. Talk to them about the challenges, fears and vulnerabilities they have and ask them what they think your audience would like to hear about. Getting access to this information and insight will help you provide contextually relevant examples and that will ensure your content is meaningful. It will also dramatically boost your confidence.
Read, watch and listen. There is this amazing tool called the IN-TER-NET. Use it! Read annual reports, analyst commentary, insider blogs and press releases to get a sense of an organization’s moral, ego, issues and sensibilities. Watch video addresses given by senior leadership, listen to interviews they’ve done with mainstream and social media. You’re trying to understand their intellect, ego and personality as an organization or team or group of practitioners. Do they swagger? Or reflect? Are they open and hungry for new ideas and information? Or do they think they already know it all? What are they proud of? Embarrassed by? Wanting to win at? The answers to these questions will not only help you focus your presentation they will also give you ideas about how to share your content. You want to find the intersection between you and your style of speaking and them and their approach to listening and learning. Good old-fashioned research can help with this.
And if you don’t have much luck doing your own research on the Internet, there are special places called LI-BRA-RIES. Remember those? They still exist. You might even have one in your organization. Inside these fabled sanctuaries are specially trained people called librarians who can help you explore and answer just about any question. Take advantage of the resources in your community and within your organization.
Reflect on your own experience. Before you start mapping out your content, think about your own experience working with people who might be similar to the audience you’re going to speak to. What excited them? What worried them? How can you help them get what they want? And avoid what they don’t want? Reflect on the questions and concerns that were raised during past engagements with similar audiences.
Reference back. While I strongly recommend you do most of your audience research well before you set foot in the room, you can also do some learning when you get there. Get there early and talk to audience members before the session starts or during coffee breaks. If you’re comfortable refining and integrating on the fly, you can further contextualize your content by referencing back to conversations with audience members or other speakers. You can also actively reference back to people you spoke to during your research process, just make sure they’re comfortable being named and it’s appropriate to share what you spoke about.
It’s easy to fall into the “I’m the Pro in the Know” trap. Your experience and expertise is no doubt impressive and truly exceptional, but only a subset of it will be relevant to any given audience. Your job is figure out who your audience is and what they care about so you can share the most meaningful content you’ve got.