Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Get Comfortable With Your Audience - But Not TOO Comfortable

One of the oldest pieces of Public Speaking advice is "picture the audience in their underwear". Its also one of the worst! No matter who's in the audience, you are likely to either completely distract or disgust yourself by following this odd maxim that perhaps only the editors of Maxim still publicly endorse.

I was going to put a Maxim cover here - but, unsurprisingly, couldn't find an appropriate image...

The concept behind the statement, though, is sound - see your audience as human beings - equals - and not as a judgmental mob waiting to attack you at your first misstep.

Instead of turning your audience into a horrifying mashup of Whitey-Tighties and Granny Pants, consider these strategies instead:

1. Pre-Event Interviews - This is an excellent way to get to know your audience and make sure you are addressing their needs. Ask the person who booked you if you can make contact with a variety of individuals in the organization, from top-level executives to front-line customer-service reps to middle-management. Along with gathering a tremendous amount of valuable information for your presentation, you'll build a comfort-level with your audience members, and create a few friendly faces before you ever arrive.

2. Read Their Press - Both good and bad. See what they look like both on and off their pedestal. This research may or may not make its way into your presentation, depending on the goal of your message, but it can help you build a more realistic vision of the company you are about to serve.

3. Check Their Competition - Who else does what they do? The more you understand what conflicts they face in the marketplace, the more you will understand and identify with them.

4. Attend the Entire Event - If you are just one piece of a larger conference, be their for the whole event. You'll learn a ton about the company, the culture, and the emotional temperature of your upcoming audience. You'll also get a chance to introduce yourself to those around you, creating more friendly faces for you to connect with from the stage. If you're lucky, you'll also know to scratch that story the speaker used two hours before your presentation!

5. Show Up Early - Even if you are the only speaker, you can show up ahead of time and mix with the crowd coming in. Shake some hands, share some smiles, and maybe even ask a question or two that can fit into your presentation: "One of the questions I heard coming in was...."

6. Get Them Laughing Early - Not only does humor put your audience in a better state to hear you speak, their laughter can immediately set YOU at ease, knowing that you are connecting and they are accepting you.

In the end, your audience is simply made of regular people. They are not going to throw the baby tomatoes from their salad at you, come after you with pitchforks, or instantly vaporize you from the stage if you aren't making them happy. The more you get to know them before you speak in the first place, the greater the likelihood you'll make them happy anyway - so get comfortable with your audience. But not TOO comfortable...

What tips have you found useful as you speak to put you at ease with the audience? Please add to the conversation!


  1. Another compelling and still as important idea as Knowing our Audience is Knowing our material.
    Know all the details, all the different ways to explain them as well as how these stats will effect our presentation(s.)

    There is nothing more boring than listening to someone drone-on about an issue that has no relevance to the audience.
    Think in the W.I.I.F.T. (What's In It For Them?) mode, deliver this as we will be asked to present again and again with good value!



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