by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently a Star-Ledger editorial critiqued US Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes’ effort to improve America’s image in the Middle East. Ms. Hughes is an accomplished communications expert. However, in reference to a recent speech she made in the Middle East, the Star-Ledger editorial said, “Hughes seemed badly briefed…and diplomatically tone deaf when the occasion called for perfect pitch.”

Hughes spoke to a group of Saudi Arabian women about getting rid of their black robes, or Abayas, and encouraged them to fight for their right to drive. Yet, according to the Ledger, many of the women wanted her to “focus on equal opportunity, better education and political rights.” Finally, the editorial said that some Saudi women perceived Hughes as “clueless” as to their aspirations.

This is less about politics and more about communication and connecting with your audience, particularly one that is difficult to reach. Some questions and answers to consider.

Q—What are the keys to getting to know your audience?

A—You can never know too much about your audience. But some of the basic things you must understand include what critical issues or challenges are many in the audience facing? Who are the key leaders? Has the audience had a recent experience that may have shaped their mood or attitude?

Q—What do I do if I can’t get some of this information before I speak to a particular group?

A—Much of it should be accessible, but if you are thrown into a situation with little or no time to prepare, plan to arrive 30 minutes before you are scheduled to speak. Use that time to mingle with the audience. Introduce yourself and ask some questions such as, “What do you think you and your colleagues really want to hear today?” Or, “What would you like to take away from my presentation?”

Through conversing with individuals in the audience before you speak, you will pick up valuable insight. I saw Colin Powell do this before a speech he delivered in New Jersey on the subject of volunteerism. At a cocktail party preceding his speech He simply asked people where they were volunteering and then he discreetly jotted down some notes. When he spoke, he used this information to start his presentation. He referred to people by name and connected immediately.

Q—What if I have a really good “standard” presentation on a particular topic?

A—Each presentation, no matter how well rehearsed, must be tailored to a particular audience. If you don’t, your presentation will be seen as canned. It will send the message that your audience wasn’t worth the effort to get to know. This doesn’t mean you change your message or the facts of your presentation, it just means that you ask yourself, “If I were in this audience, what would I really want to hear?”

Q—With all the demands on our time, how do we fight the urge to go on “auto-pilot” when presenting?

A—Great question. Consider Nathan Lane or any great theater performer who must do the same play six to eight times a week. Each time, they must perform at their best. If you went to see Lane in “The Producers” on Friday, all you cared about was how he performed that Friday. You don’t care that he was great on Thursday and might again be great on Sunday. Therefore, performers who constantly stand and deliver must fight the urge to go on auto-pilot. Each presentation must stand on its own because it is a new audience and a new opportunity.

When you make the investment to connect with a particular audience at a given moment, the payoff is more than worth it.