Just Ask Them
Have you ever witnessed a presentation that has gone completely off the rails? The kind where you snap out of a daydream and realize that you have spent the last 10 minutes staring at the weave of the carpet with your mouth slightly agape, only to tune back in for content that has no relevance to you or your needs? And… it’s back to the carpet.
Meanwhile, the presenter has no idea that they have lost your attention. Or if they’ve noticed, they don’t care and plow onward. You look around and see others also silently enduring, either out of acquiescence to cultural norms, enjoyment of the carpet weave, or the inability to make it to the exit without being seen.
The creation of this disengagement cocktail usually starts early. As most presenters prepare, they think a lot about themselves: Will they look smart, interesting, charming, stupid? Most people get super-focused on the content, making sure they can answer any question, that the slides are perfect. Then, they get up in front of their audience and unleash their fire hose of expertise. We tried to capture this dynamic in the diagram above called the Blakesley Triangle (named after an early client, Steven Blakesley, who demanded that presenters in his company stop putting their audiences to sleep). The relationship between audience and presenter (red arrows) is what is so often neglected.
So how do we get over our need to be the all-knowing, all-downloading experts? I think the answer lies in getting curious about your audience and their relationship to your topic. Specifically, who are they? What keeps them up at night? Gets them out of bed in the morning?
Facilitation master Thiagi says, “If you want to know what your audience wants, you should … just ask them.”
Obvious and brilliant advice, but how do you have a conversation with your audience so you can gain greater understanding? Here are two easy ways:
Pre-interview your audience.
At On Your Feet, we will often pre-interview a cross-section of our actual audience before the presentation. We’ll ask questions about what is and isn’t working around the presentation topic. These 20-minute phone conversations provide invaluable information that helps us customize the presentation to meet that particular audience’s needs. We share an aggregated (anonymous!) version of what we’ve heard with the audience so they know they matter.
Talk to your audience as they come into the room.
Often pre-interviews aren’t practical. If not, simply talk to your audience as they file into the room. Tell them you are presenting and have some questions about their experience. Audiences are happy to share, but presenters often feel like they have to stay backstage like performers or magicians, never being seen before a big reveal. Unless you are wearing a shocking costume, this is rarely the case.
With a little effort your audience will feel that they matter, and your content will be more useful to them. Let us know what you try and how it goes!