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Planning to connect with your audience? Here are the crunch questions you need to ask before you begin assembling detail.

What kind of people will be there?

What professions? What interests? What mix of genders? Will the audience individuals know each other? Are they all members of the same group? The answers can tell you a lot about the atmosphere you can expect.

What do they know about the topic already?

Are they all armed with the latest knowledge? Do they know nothing about it? Is there a mixture? Very often there's a mixture of expertise and you'll have to take that into account, so as not to risk insulting one part of your audience and boring another. You need to know what level of jargon is acceptable. The fine details of printed circuit boards may be fascinating to electronics engineers, but would cause an audience of electronics salesmen to pop anxiety pills.

Will there be experts in the audience?

How many are likely to know more about the topic (or parts of it) than you? Will you need to verbally acknowledge that expertise?

What will they expect from you?

Will it be a discussion? Are they expecting to be informed, consulted, or involved in some other way? If they don't know what to expect, you may need to give them the answer to those questions.

And above all, know the answer to this question:

What do they feel about the topic already?

Yes, the word is 'feel', not 'know'. Even if you were to leave out every other question, don't ignore this one. Not knowing the answer can lead to nightmarish speaking disasters. Knowing it will lead you into one of the most powerful components of persuasion: showing that you know 'where they're coming from'.

How strong are the feelings involved? Are they entrenched? Is the audience divided? If so, what proportion feel one way? What proportion the other? How many are undecided? Why do they have the feelings they do? If you're asking someone else for these answers, take nothing as gospel... for hot issues, it's possible that no one can give you an unbiased picture.

What questions are they likely to ask you?

What are the worst questions they might have? What emotions could they throw at you? Suppose, for example, you're going to speak about a wonderful new computer system - but last time they had to cope with a new computer system, half of them were treated for paranoia and the rest applied for early retirement. Do you think knowing that feeling in advance might affect your preparation? Prepare to take it to them before they take it to you. Toughest of all: what questions and concerns could be on the mind of an audience too polite to interrupt? This is potentially the invisible elephant in the room, silently sabotaging your presentation.

Yes, it might take courage to openly address their concerns. Ignore them (hoping they don't ask awkward questions) and their respect for you will plummet. Openly acknowledge them and their respect will rise even when they continue to disagree with your solutions.

Your topic will only be effective to the extent that it has meaning for the audience. Which means that your preparation must link your topic with their questions, concerns and objections.

Know your audience. Prepare to engage. Reap the rewards.


About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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