by Theodore May

Reaching an audience

Jan 25, 2016
C-SuiteIT Leadership

The ability to reach an audience can make the difference between delivering a presentation and delivering a great presentation.

The ability to reach an audience is critical to the success of any business presentation. If you aren’t able to reach your audience, it doesn’t matter how important your message is, how flashy your deck is, how well you speak or how much time and energy has been devoted to preparation. You’ll fail to transform anyone’s thinking and certainly won’t move your audience to action.

Stage actors are always curious about the audience before a show. Some will peek out into the house from the wings. Is it a full house? Does the audience seem young or old? Are they chatty or quiet? Are they going to be a good audience: will they be attentive and responsive?

You don’t need to know every person in the audience, but it helps to know the character of your audience so that you can fine tune your message and shape your performance to meet their needs; so that you can reach your audience.

Who is your audience?

There are three basic audiences for technology presentations.

The first is comprised of laypersons: non-technologists. They could be executives from account management, finance, marketing, HR, or board members. Nearly everyone today is an active user of technology and so tend to think of themselves as being “tech savvy.” Non-technologist may upgrade their operating systems regularly, buy the latest consumer electronics, download games and social media apps, and use Salesforce or the Wiki. But for most, engineering and technology development are not their primary jobs, experience or training. This audience may be comprised of important stakeholders and decision makers on whom the success of a technology initiative depends. But they may also be a step or more behind when it comes to understanding how it all works.

The second audience is technologists: by training and vocation. For your purposes they are generalists. They may be able to parse code, create algorithms and apply Agile development methodologies, but they may not be immediately familiar with your particular platform, applications, or product suite. They are with you, but are looking for cues and are translating, associating and making assumptions as they go.

The third is what I would call team members. They may not be a part of your scrum, but they are technologists or executives with a technology background that have history, experience, engagement and relationships with your project, your apps, and your platform, etc. They know what you’re talking about and are in lock step … if not a step or two ahead.

Audience cultures

Each audience type is its own culture. They have their own language, rhythms and norms that must be respected. Otherwise you risk alienating them if they are rigid or losing them even if they are open and persuadable. The first audience may require more formality, the others may be entirely informal. Arcane acronyms and principles may appeal to the second and third audiences but only create distance between the presenter and the first. The third audience may have no interest in the past and be impatient to consider only the future. It may be difficult to reach a consensus involving the first audience (they simply don’t know), but essential with the third. The second audience may require the most initial socializing, whereas the first and second may be ready to get on with it quickly. Be sensitive to these differences.    

Audiences are often hybrids and I’m often asked, “What you do it that case? Do you go for the lowest common denominator?”

Addressing the needs of your audiences

You have to consider how much of each of the three audiences you are facing. Which is predominant by accident or design? If one clearly dominates, then favor it. But remember what it is that’s essential for each of the audiences to learn from the presentation. If you have non-technologists in the audience, it isn’t essential that they understand everything at its most basic level. But there are likely 1-3 points in the presentation it’s essential that they understand. You have to take the time, set the tone and provide a level of simplicity and detail that ensures you reach them on these points when you get to them. The same is true for the other audiences present: target the relevant points and presentation to each.

The last thing to remember is that you have to let the others in on any inside joke you reference with the team or other technologists. You don’t have to explain why something is funny and try to get everyone to see and agree that it is. You just have to reference the shared knowledge or experience that you are riffing on to let them know that the joke is not at their expense and so that they do not feel left out.

Naming your fear is the first step to conquering it. Naming and knowing your audience – and being sensitive to their needs – is the first step toward reaching them and delivering a great presentation.