by Steve Adubato, PhD

Great communicators have a keen sense of who their audience is for a presentation. They don’t simply think about what THEY want to say, but rather spend a great deal of time working on how their message will be received and perceived.

There are numerous examples of speakers who simply miss the mark because they skip this critical step in the communication process. One of those speakers may be William Fried, a management consultant who spoke in January to a group of middle-school students in Palo Alto California on what was billed as “Career Day.”

According to the Associated Press, Fried gave a 55-minute presentation entitled, “The Secret of a Happy Life.” It’s a presentation he has done for the past several years. Fried’s expertise is encouraging students to try many different activities and pursue a variety of interests as a way to figure out what they will be passionate about professionally.

All this sounds great except this time Fried somehow allowed his presentation to veer onto the topic of exotic dancing. He told the eighth graders (mostly 13-year-olds) that exotic dancers/strippers can make up to $250,000 per year or more, “depending upon their bust size.” According to Jason Garcia, one of the students in the seminar, Fried said, “For every 2 inches up there, you should get another $50,000 on your salary.” You can’t make this stuff up. It really happened.

While William Fried’s communication faux pa appears obvious, there are other presenters who make comparable mistakes because they don’t truly understand who they are speaking to and what is expected of them in a given circumstance. With this in mind, consider some questions to ask before you present to any audience:

  • Who are they? How old are they? What is their maturity level? How might they receive provocative comments about strippers making $250,000 a year? Is it likely they can get past the initial shock and be able to put this “career” into its proper context? Simply put, age and maturity matters.
  • How much do they know? What is their education level? Does your audience have any special training that would cause them to know more or less about a topic? The knowledge level of an audience is critical. It effects not just the issues you raise, but the words you use in communicating. There is nothing worse than having a scientist present his research findings using jargon that an audience clearly doesn’t understand.
  • Why are they there? Is it mandatory? Did they volunteer? Were they pressured into attending your presentation? All these things matter. However, regardless of the reasons an audience member attends, it is always more important how they leave and what they leave with.
  • What is the size of your audience? Is it 10, 100, 1,000? The smaller your audience, the more informal your presentation should be. If it is 10 or less, you may even consider sitting down for some of it. The larger your audience, the more you may want to physically move closer to audience members. Many communicators only prepare to present to a certain audience size. This is a mistake. Great communicators are flexible and deal with the hand they are dealt.
  • Who is the audience beyond the audience you are speaking to? Sure, William Fried was speaking to eighth graders, but he was also speaking to school administrators and the parents of those kids. The savvy communicator will consider the secondary and tertiary audiences who will hear second- and third-hand about his presentation. While you can’t control how this information is communicated, you can at least consider it. If Mr. Fried had done this, he may have given a very different presentation.