How the Audience Shapes Your Content: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Audience
As I talked about in a previous post, Planning Your Presentation: Goal Setting and Audience a presentation is always created for a specific audience. That means who you are speaking to has everything to do with what you put in your presentation.
There are four key questions to ask yourself about the audience as you prepare your content:
- How much does the audience already know about my topic? Are they experts or novices or somewhere in between? Knowing this will help you determine where you need to start. If they are novices, you may need to start at the very beginning and give a lot of background information. The experts won’t require as much background, because they already know the topic well. If you are unsure about the audience’s level of knowledge about your topic, shoot for a middle ground, not starting at the very beginning, but giving some background information. That way everyone should be able to stay with you.
- How much does the audience need to know? The answer to this question is often “Enough to be able to make a decision,” but that may not be the same amount of information for all audiences. There is a cultural element to this question. Some cultures need a lot of detailed information in order to make a decision (aka Germans), while others need less information and detail (aka Americans). In either case, it is likely that the audience does not need to know everything you know on the topic. Resist the temptation to make your presentation a display of your knowledge and expertise. Instead, give the audience exactly what they need to know to decide or take action. Remember, less is always more.
- A key question people often don’t think to ask themselves as they prepare a presentation is “What narrative could be playing in the heads of my audience members about my topic?” The audience may have preconceived ideas about your subject due to media coverage or popular dogma. If you can identify this narrative, you can counter it (if it is negative) or build on it (if it is positive).
- It is also a good idea to ask yourself, “What questions might the audience have?” about your topic. There may be questions you are used to getting when you present, or anticipated questions could be related to what the audience might have heard via the media. Anticipating these questions and building the answers into your presentation can take the stress out of the Q&A and put your audience at ease.
What if you can’t get much information?
As we have discussed, it is always best to get as much information as possible about your audience before you begin to prepare your presentation, but what if, try as you might, you are unable to learn much about them? The best advice, in that case, is to “shoot for the middle”. Plan to include some background, but don’t start at the very beginning and include a “medium” level of detail. If you are presenting on a topic you have presented before, think about how other audiences have responded, what they knew, and the kinds of questions they asked.
Another way to handle it is to keep your presentation basic and allow your audience to ask questions in the Q&A to fill in the blanks. This could create a conversational dynamic to your presentation, but it could also indicate to some audience members that you don’t know your stuff. Think about your overall goal to decide if this would get you the outcome you need.