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Meet Them Where They Are


I attended a recent ASTD Atlanta chapter meeting where representatives from the Turner organization talked about how they rolled out a comprehensive Talent Management System.  (For those unfamiliar with HR jargon, that’s how corporate America now refers to everything human resource related in an organization – performance reviews, compensation, succession planning, training, etc.)   Turner underwent a massive overhaul of their systems.  It was very impressive to hear how they managed the process.  In the lessons learned review, one of the key factors that they felt lead to their success was that they always kept their audience – the employees of their many companies – in mind when they were planning and rolling out their enormous overhaul.  They knew how their employees like to consume information.  And rather than saying, “Well, they’ll just have to adjust to a new way,” Turner leaders said, “Hey, we know how our employees act.  Let’s adjust our plans to what’s going to work best for them so that they’ll adopt these new systems.”

How often in communications do we think, “How can I modify this message so that they can hear the information in a way that makes sense to them?”  It’s natural to default to our own perspective.  In one-on-one conversations, we get feedback and can adjust our message.  But when it comes to a presentation, we’re so much better off if we really know the audience and how they want to consume the information.  One critical way to be the most effective with an audience is to interview potential attendees as you prepare your presentation.

What to Expect When You Ask to Interview Prospective Audience Members

If you’re new to the idea of interviewing potential audience members, here’s what you can expect.

No One Has Ever Asked Me to Do that Before

When I begin working with a meeting organizer, I ask for the names and contact information of some of their people who will be attending the event.  The most common thing I hear is, “Oh.  Um?  OK.  No one has ever done that before.”  Even though I know the interview process will make my presentation more meaningful for their audience, I still get a little self-conscience when I get that response.  So brace yourself for it.  Trust the process and ask for the names and contact information.  With all the clients I’ve done this process, I inevitably find out key information that makes a significant difference in how I address the issues of the audience.

Spam Alert

One professional association I worked with told me that the last time a speaker asked for names and contact information, she put the people on her email list and started spamming them.  In that case, I assured the meeting organizer that I would only be contacting the individuals so that I could customize the presentation to make it relevant to her audience.  She reluctantly agreed and of course, I kept my word.  She was extremely pleased with the presentation I gave to the group.  And now, whenever I see her at networking events, she always makes a point to say hello and she’s always wearing a big grin when she does it.

I learned from that experience so that when I’m working with a new client, I preempt the question by letting the meeting organizer know right up front that I promise not to use the information for any other purposes – in other words, I promise not to spam them!  I also ask the organizer to give the individuals a “heads up” to let them know I’ll be contacting them.  That way, they also don’t think I’m spamming them when I actually call!

You Won’t Reach Everyone on the List

Don’t stress out if you aren’t able to speak to all the people whose names you receive.  In an earlier post, I talked about the fact that while I request 10 names, I usually only talk to 5 – 7 people.  People are busy.  They have higher priorities that talking to you or me.  Don’t be offended.  Just go into it knowing that you won’t reach everyone.  Believe it or not, you can find out a great deal from talking to as few as 4 people.

Expect to Find the Unexpected

Meeting organizers and managers, no matter how well intentioned, will often leave out important information that is relevant to your presentation.  But here’s the cool thing.  Because someone from their organization told them to expect your call, you’ll be amazed at how candid perspective audience members will be when you talk with them.  You need to have a good set of questions (see this post for some suggestions), listen very carefully, ask clarifying questions (such as what do you mean by XYZ – it’s usually not what you think of by XYZ) and then listen very carefully again.  People love to talk about themselves and their work.  You will be astounded and grateful for what you learn!

The Payoff When You Meet People Where They Are

Like the good people at Turner, you will find the rewards for meeting people where they are well worth the extra time and effort you spend in your research.  If you’re speaking because your message matters, it’s important to do your homework so that you can help your audience.  Meeting people where they are will demonstrate very clearly why, with presentations, it’s not about perfections…it’s about connections.  See how well you connect when you meet people where they are!

What’s Your Story?

Have you done your homework and been astounded by what your perspective audience told you?  Tell us about it in the comments below!