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It’s Not About You! Except When It Is!


Mary was so excited, she called me on the way home.  “I nailed it Kelly.  I nailed it!”  It was the day after Mary had attended a presentation skills workshop with me and she had an opportunity to apply what she’d learned the very next day.

“What made the difference for you this time?”  Mary, although a good speaker, was extremely anxious about public speaking.  I was eager to learn what helped her break through and be so excited about her latest presentation.

“I know I’ve heard it before but this time it really stuck with me that ‘It’s not about me.’  Once I remembered that my audience really needed the information I was giving them, it made everything easier.  It was awesome!”

It’s Not About You (the Presenter)

Whether you’re reluctant to speak in front of a group or not, it’s important to remember that the presentation is not about you… it’s about the audience.  And I strongly believe this.

But that seems contrary to something else I’ve often said.  “Tell personal stories.”  So if it’s not about you (the speaker), then why tell personal stories?

Well in some ways, it is about you!

It’s Not About You – The Presenter – Except When It Is!

Life is full of paradoxes… two aspects that seem to be at odds yet which both happen to be true.  I think to understand why both “it’s not about you” and “except when it is” are true, it helps to consider the five purposes of a presentation.

The 5 Purposes of Your Presentation

Most presentation textbooks talk about the importance of having a single purpose for your presentation but it’s my position that speeches, like life, are messy.  Rarely are we trying to satisfy just one need with a presentation.  That’s where the Five Purposes of your presentation come into play.

1 – General Purpose

This is just a word that generally describes what a speech is meant to accomplish.  Is the purpose to inform?  To educate?  To persuade?  To inspire?  What, in a word, is the overall purpose of the presentation?


2 – Specific Purpose

The specific purpose describes what the presentation will be about.  This is the “one purpose” that textbooks talk about.  Think of the specific purpose as the description you would use if someone asked you what you’ll be covering in your presentation.


3 – The Meeting Leader’s Purpose

Assuming you were asked by someone to speak, consider what that person’s motives are for asking you to present.  Understand what the person who called the meeting hopes to accomplish.


4 – The Audience’s Purpose

The audience’s purpose is the reason they came to see you.  You might assume that it’s because of the specific purpose.  That’s not always the case.  Sometime, attendees are required to attend.  Sometimes they have ulterior motives.  (Where possible, interview perspective audience members to learn more about their purpose for attending.  See this post for more information.)


5 – Your Purpose

Why did you agree to do the presentation? Was it because your boss made you?  Did you volunteer?  How do you personally want to benefit as a result of giving the presentation?

I’ll post a more detailed post on the 5 Purposes another day, but for now the point is that you should give all these purposes ample consideration as you prepare for a presentation.

For our discussion in this post, let’s take a look at when it’s not about you… and when it is.

It’s About the Audience

The meeting leader has a purpose in mind.  That purpose likely focuses on something that will benefit the audience or the leader’s organization.  – That’s not about you.  It’s about what you can deliver to their audience and the value it brings.

The audience’s purpose is by definition about the audience.  They are investing their precious time in listening to you.   They want to benefit from it – even if they’re being forced to be there.  No one likes to have her time wasted.  No one wants to listen to a message that he can’t relate to.    That’s not about you – it’s about what you can do for the audience.  And it they attended voluntarily because of what they read in the specific purpose, then you’d better come through!

Except When It’s About You

Notice that you have a purpose too.  There is something that you personally or professionally want to get out of the presentation.  As long as it gels with the other 4 purposes there’s nothing wrong with that.   But beyond that, what makes part of it about you, is the fact that your audience wants to know the real and sincere you.  They want to know you.  They want to like you.  They want to trust you.  You benefit and align with your purpose if you can demonstrate through your words, through your stories and through your actions that you are likable and trust worthy.

When we’re vulnerable with an audience by telling them a personal story when we don’t look so good – it may be about us, but it benefits the audience.

When we tell a story about how we found success – it may be about us, but it demonstrates to the audience how they can learn from our experience… if we can do it, so can they.

When we talk about the clients we’ve helped – it demonstrates our credibility so that the audience can know that they can trust us and apply the valuable content that they’re learning for themselves.

Yes, it’s a little paradoxical but by talking about ourselves – in the right balance of the good and the bad – and then by making the connection to them as the audience, we can really better serve all 5 purposes than if we just made general comments about general things.

So Is It About Your?  Or About Them?

The answer is yes.  The best presentations lie in walking the line between the two.

But when you get it right, like Mary did, it’s a wonderful thing for you and for your audience!!

So What Do You Think?

Do you agree?  Disagree?  How do you balance how you talk about you with how you talk about them?  Any wisdom you can share will be greatly appreciated!


Jim Bannon
Jim Bannon

Kelly, A great READ and a worthwhile topic. The audience needs to relate to the presenter, and emotion is where all the relationship begins. We are human and respond out of instinct at the most primary level, then use our intellect to raise the conscious to a higher level of "Evaluation". The first instincts are born when we are, as anyone who has observed a baby can attest. The baby "relies" on someone he/she trusts... a nurturer and a guide. As adults, we begin as a member of an audience not too dissimilar from the position we found ourselves in when we were babies - experiencing an event that was "new" to us. We still have a NEED dependency. That's why the advise to speakers to tune into WIIFM (What's in it for ME)radio station in terms of the message CONTENT... but before the intellect can grasp the content, the HEART is already being driven by emotion. As a speaker who can feel and see when I am "getting to" an audience, I guarantee that any time spent early relating to their emotional needs from the standpoint of "someone who has walked in their shoes" will EARN me the credibility and TRUST for the audience to be open to the message I deliver. That position of "AUTHORITY" and respect is earned once they view me as a CARE-GIVER and evaluate the sincerity I bring to the communication task in much the same way they viewed their mother - the initial primary care-giver. Hope this adds some insight.


Jim - Thanks for joining in the conversation and adding your insights! Kelly

Melanie Greenberg PhD
Melanie Greenberg PhD

Kelly, This is very good advice. I taught many graduate classes and over the years, i learned that the students wanted to feel that they knew me, and could relate to me as a role model with foibles! The personal part makes the talk memorable, I think. It distinguishes it from a bunch of facts. Being clear about what the audience and organization's needs are and what you want out of it can make you more focused and strategic as a speaker. Also, it may help in making decisions re whether to accept a speaking invitation in the first place.


Melanie - Great thoughts! Thanks for adding your experience as well. And AMEN about the decision on whether or not to accept the speaking invitation in the first place! You'll save everyone heart ache and frustration if you're true to yourself and to them!

Dawn Lennon
Dawn Lennon

I love your point about the paradox which is so true. I've experienced it hundreds of times when speaking to audiences of all sizes and interests. In addition your great list of audience expectations, I would just add they want to believe you care--about them, your message, and your effectiveness. Authenticity and sincerity go a long way and can often make up for a glitch here and there. Thanks for a rich message. ~Dawn


Dawn - Thanks for your comments. I agree with you 100% on the authenticity and sincerity! People are forgiving if they are seeing the real you! Thanks for adding to the conversation! Kelly