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  • Bruce Rule

Know Your Audience When Public Speaking

Updated: May 26

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Find Out Who Will Attend Your Presentation

One of the first things you should do when you are preparing a company presentation is to find out as much as you can about who will be listening. Tailoring your speech to your audience is one of the major ways you can improve your public speaking, and all it takes is a little preparation time.


Let’s say you are tapped to do a progress report on a project. If the presentation is to your supervisor and co-workers who already know the basics of the project, you probably can skip some of the specifics and past history. If, however, you are speaking to a group outside your area—or to much higher-ups in the company— you may need to include some of that background for them to understand the project’s current status. With a presentation to outsiders, say a visiting high-school class, you would probably be more general and avoid any details that might be proprietary.


So the first thing you should do when you are scheduled to speak is ask the arranger who is expected to be there. Don’t assume you know, even if it is a regularly occurring presentation like a monthly progress report. Ask if there will be anybody sitting in, and if there will be, find out who and why. You may need to address something specific for the visitor, or go into more background or specifics than you planned. If there are going to be newcomers, and your corporate culture allows it, reach out to them to introduce yourself and ask if they have questions or concerns they want addressed. (I say if your corporate culture allows it because in some companies supervisors frown on a worker reaching out to another department without permission. Also, some companies strictly enforce chain-of-command, so reaching out to higher-ups without going through your supervisor may not be a good idea).


Prior to the meeting, if you come across anybody who you know will be there make a point of saying how much you are looking forward to the presentation and ask them if they have any questions they want addressed. If they do that will help you prepare. Even if they don’t they will appreciate the question. Your interest in their concerns, as well as our enthusiasm, will put your audience members in a more receptive mood, which will help your presentation be more effective.


CEOs vs. CFOs


With your audience in mind, you can now fashion a better presentation. First make sure you address any questions or concerns that people have mentioned.


Now, give some thought to the composition of the audience. If the CEO or other top people are going to be present, be aware that they probably have dozens of other things that are competing for their time. It was said that someone speaking to President John F. Kennedy had to catch his attention in the first 10 seconds or he would move on to another issue. So when I say right away, I mean as quickly as possible. In your opening sentence, if you can. These top people usually are focused on the big picture—how does this help the company—so address that right away or they might turn their attention to whatever other pressing issues they need to address.


If, however, you will be speaking to the chief financial officer or the accounting department, then you might fashion your presentation to include more financial details than you might for the CEO.


Give some thought about your audience even when it is the same people each time. Is there someone who always asks about a particular part of the project, or a specific issue? Head her off by addressing it on your own. Does their attention drift when you talk about a particular part of the project? If so, maybe you can shorten that part of the presentation, or talk about it differently.


In the next post we will talk about some ways you can learn about your audience when speaking outside a company setting, and how that can help you fashion your presentation to be more effective.

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