Here are my 10 suggestions to help your audience listen better, starting here.
I used to define the audience of my presentations by their demographics – the facts – such as their titles, their company or organization, or their responsibilities. But a mentor pointed out that would I like to be reduced down to black and white statistics? Or would I prefer to be spoken to as if I was a flesh-and-blood person?
Instead, I was given two questions on how to understand the audience better.
1. What’s my relationship to the audience?
2. What type of audience do I have?
What’s My Relationship To The Audience?
To paraphrase a well-known Harvard Business Review article, why should anyone want to listen to you?
Depending upon which research you prefer, as much as 50% to 70% of your audience won’t begin listening at the beginning of your presentation until they have a strong understanding of why you are a subject matter expect about your topic. That means you need to establish credibility from the get-go. Generally, you do it in two ways. You tell the audience at the beginning why you’re an expert, or you ask the person introducing you to establish why you’re the expert. (If your lead-in doesn’t know how to introduce you, tell them in explicit messages how to do so.)
The next questions to ask should be considered together. What’s your status in relation to the audience? What’s your position in relation to the audience?
Status defines the vertical relationship. Are you more senior to them, or more junior? Are you an big-wig corporate spokesperson speaking to the common man, or a junior person being fed to the wolfish senior executives? In short, how does their hierarchical position affect how they might listen to you? Absolutely do not assume your title demands your audience to listen to you.
Position defines the horizontal relationship. Are you part of the same organization or company, but in a different department or team? Are you in a different company, but have the same title or responsibility? Are you speaking to people entirely different than you, except for that one common denominator? As much as the vertical relationship, the position has both positive and negative connotations. Know the difference, and use the strengths and minimize the distractions.
What Type of Audience Do I Have?
There are three types of audience members: Decision Maker, Detractor and Coach.
The Decision Maker is the person who will say yes or no to your recommendation. Your entire audience can hypothetically be Decision Makers, but it’s more likely that only a few are, if not one specific person. The key with the Decision Maker is to be precise and succinct on why their person should listen to you. Most of the time, the purpose should link to a business outcome.
The Detractor listens to your ideas negatively. Their purpose is to review your recommendation to highlight the problem, outline the issues, and identify leaps of logic. Their role in the organization is to understand, quantify and minimize risk. Detractors generally come in two types: Influencers (they can say no, but they can’t say yes), or Gatekeepers (they keep you away from information and people, particularly the decision maker).
People often fear the Detractors for the wrong reasons. They perceive them as roadblocks, as the person who says ‘No’ without reason. Most wrongly, they fear the Detractors for personal reasons. However, the good Detractors can offer you something invaluable. They can tell you precisely what’s wrong with your argument, hypothesis or recommendation. If you can put aside your personal bias and understand the weaknesses in your proposal – and then fix those problems – you not only make a more solid presentation, you gain self-confidence.
The Coach listens to your ideas positively. Their purpose is to highlight the key assets of your recommendation. They listen because they learn from you, or you give ballast to their own opinions or beliefs. They support you and say good things about you. They’re often mentors.
People flock to the Coach because they give psychological support. Mothers are the ultimate Coaches. They make you feel good. They prop up your self-confidence. That’s all good, but all that mental hugging pales compared to the role of the Detractor bless you also understand the real value of the Coach. The good Coaches tell you precisely why your argument, hypothesis or recommendation is right, why it will work, why the evidence is appropriate, etc. But you have to know exactly why your presentation content (if not your presentation style or technique) is accurate to make it effective in in supporting your presentation.
There are two other important points about Detractors vs. Coaches. When a Decision Maker wants advice or counsel, do they turn to the Detractor or the Coach? Typically, it’s the Detractor, so that’s another reason why to get the Detractors on your side well before your presentation, not at the meeting itself.
And, if you can get the Detractor on your side, by using their critical points to improve your recommendation, you often turn him/her into a more influential Coach than a ‘regular’ Coach.
You might recognize these audiences in the SWOT analysis. Detractors articulate Weaknesses and Threats. Coaches articulate Strengths and Opportunities. If you think about what your audiences can do to help your presentation (even before they listen to your ideas), you can better understand and leverage your relationship and shared knowledge with them and others. Most important, by by leveraging the Detractors and Coaches to be influential to the Decision Maker, you also are more effective at persuading and winning over the person who has direct impact on your business objective.