Supercompetent Speaking: Tailoring Your Presentation to Your Audience

Before your presentation, discover as much as you can about your audience, the leadership’s key objectives, and your role.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

One of the most important tenants in speaking is know thy audience. Failure to do your homework can mean failure. At a minimum, your message will be diluted and won’t have the impact it could have. You always will do a much better job when you conduct better research.

I’m not talking about something as blatantly ill-advised as advocating your favorite weight-loss tips to an audience of recovering anorexics or trying to sell winter coats to Bedouins. A presentation doesn’t have to completely miss its target to fail. You may lose points (and people) simply because it doesn’t have the impact it could, because you don’t understand the people in the seats as well as you should. So be sure to get all the facts you need about your audience first. Find out about:

  1. The culture (national, professional, or organizational). Who are they? If there are attendees from other countries, or you’re speaking internationally, take that into account. What is important to them? What do they expect? What do they consider rude? What humor won’t go over because they don’t “get” it? What communication style do they prefer? For example, it’s common for Americans to begin presentations with humor; however, Japanese speakers may begin by apologizing because they don’t know more about the subject (which doesn’t go over well with an American audience). Similarly, professional associations and companies will use different jargon (do they call employees “team members,” “associates,” or “individual contributors”?).
  2. Their level of knowledge. Are they sophisticated conference attendees, or has their company rarely brought in outside experts?You certainly don’t want to do the equivalent of giving an introductory physics lecture to quantum theorists; you wouldn’t have anything to say that they haven’t learned already. If you know the audience’s general level of knowledge, you can make certain assumptions about what they understand, allowing you to skip the 101-level material they’ve heard before and go directly to the heart of the matter.
  3. Their needs. Why are they listening to you in the first place? What is the expertise you bring? What issues can you solve? Among those who have come to learn, be sure you know in advance just what they want. Ask your sponsor about their goals. Schedule briefing calls with key leadership to discover what messages they’d like you to reinforce with the group. After you know their objectives, what stories, case studies, and anecdotes in your content arsenal will best illustrate them? Read their newsletters, annual reports, Websites, and industry magazine. This research will connect you with the audience, when they realize how much you know about them (often better than some employees know themselves).
  4. Time of day. Even if you hit all your other targets, whenyou present may determine whether or not you make an impression. Assuming your presentation is one of several your audience members will attend that day, it may make a difference if you appear early in the morning (when many people are at peak energy level), several presentations in (as they’re looking forward to lunch), or after lunch (when they may be a bit sluggish). Take your scheduled time into account, revving the enthusiasm up or down as necessary to best engage your audience’s attention. If you’re the luncheon speaker, you may want to use a high-energy, high-humor approach to counter the heavy meal. If it’s been a long day, you may want to use a straight-to-the-point approach. If the audience has been drinking before your talk, be prepared to deal with hecklers.

The Long and Short of It

Discover as much as you can about the audience, the leadership’s key objectives, and your role. What do you want to get across? What do they want to know? How can you focus your message around their needs? How do they want to receive those benefits? By putting some serious thought into how to best appeal to your audience’s interests, you’ll dramatically increase your odds of nailing it the next time you’re up on that stage.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack is theauthor or co-author of 10 books, most recently “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.” Connect with her at;; or

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.