• open panel

Surprise – Not Always the Best Thing When It Comes to Your Audience…Part 2


When I first followed up with the people from Florida Head Start to do my pre-session interview, I admit, I underestimated how important presentation skills were to their leaders’ jobs.  While every leader needs to be able to present well to inform and motivate their staffs, I wasn’t sure why else the managers and directors of the organization would be motivated to improve their ability to present.  It didn’t take me long to find out.

With the first person I interviewed in preparation for my presentation skills workshop, I found out for these leaders, it wasn’t just about speaking in front of staff.  It was speaking to parents in the program.  It was speaking in front of legislative bodies that fund the programs.  It was speaking to government agencies that oversee the programs.  Their speaking opportunities were extremely important to their organizations and the families they serve.

As I spoke about last time in Part 1 of this series, talking to people who are expected to be in your audience before you speak to them can be extraordinarily helpful in ensuring you’re not surprised by an audience that you didn’t expect – and therefore can’t give a good presentation which meets their needs.  But if you’re going to take this step, how do you do it and what questions do you ask?

People are Busy

When I ask for the 10 names, I let the person I’m working through know that I’ll only take about 15 – 20 minutes of the individual’s time.  (And I diligently watch the clock to make sure I honor that commitment.)  I let them know I’ll be asking a few questions of that individual which will help me prepare the presentation and make sure that it’s adjusted for their particular needs.  I also ask my contact to give the people on the list a “heads up” to expect a call or email and tell the person why I’m contacting them.

Generally, I exchange emails with the contacts and schedule the 15-20 minute interview.   I always try to make the arrangement so that I’m calling them at an agreed upon time for the interview.  While the interview will ultimately give the organization a better quality program, I want to make the least amount of work for them possible which is why I always offer to call them.  All they have to do is pick up the phone and talk about themselves.

Getting to Know You

The majority of people, though they may not like to admit it, love to talk about themselves – which is generally why I start by asking the person I’m interviewing to tell me a little about themselves and the role they fill in the organization.  When it’s a group I haven’t worked with before, this can be a little confusing during the first 2 or 3 interviews as I’m figuring out the organization’s terminology and how people fit together within the group.  But the important thing is to get the individuals talking about themselves, learn as much about them and the organization as I can, and build a rapport with the individual person so they’ll feel comfortable telling me the real truth about the organization (as opposed to the prettified version that we often want to portray to outsiders).

Questions Related to Session Topic

The person who has agreed to be interviewed knows the topic that I’ll be speaking to the group on.  So I will ask one or two questions to find out what they know about the topic and how they feel about it.  I’m looking to see the level of understanding of that individual as well as their perceived level of understanding of their colleagues.  Like the example of Kathy from Part 1, how you address a sales audience is going to be different than how you address a technical audience.  If you go below the level of understanding of the audience, you’ll bore them with your presentation and waste their time.  If you go too far above their heads, you’ll bore the audience and waste their time.  I hate being bored, and I hate having my time wasted, don’t you?  Let’s not inflict that on others!

I also want to know if there will be resistance related to my topic and if so why.  Perhaps there are some misconceptions about the topic.  Perhaps with a strong opening, I can make the topic relevant to those who would resist it.  Either way, knowing in advance if the audience will be friendly or hostile will help keep us from getting blind-sided in the heat of the moment.

Biggest Concerns

Chances are, that my topic is not going to be the thing that people I’m interviewing for my session are going to care the most about.  Chances are, presentation skills are not what keeps my audience members up at night.  And unless you’re a leader getting ready to address lay-offs at the company, your topic is probably not going to be the most important topic for your audience either.  Find out what is.

I ask those I interview what are their biggest challenges.  Each person usually answers this question slightly differently.  I note the comments but also look for trends.  If I hear similar comments across three or more interviews, I know I’ve hit a sore spot.  I look for ways to relate to that concern as part of my program, whether through a story of similar challenge or through commentary as we go through the material.  This lets the audience know that I care enough to pay attention to what makes them special and unique as an organization.  And because I care, they’re more likely to listen to advice given that will help.

Greatest Victories

I also want to know what the people I talk to are proud of.  We all want to have a sense of pride in what we do.  Asking for feedback on where they get satisfaction in their role will give me meaningful examples of how I can praise the group and help them feel good about themselves… and what person could use more of that?!

Just the Facts

In addition to the points above, I will ask for demographic information about the people attending the session of those I interview.  I don’t ask all the same questions of each person I interview – mostly so I don’t go over the 20 minute commitment.  Plus usually after two or three people have answered the same way, I’m comfortable that I know the ratio of men to women or the number of years people have with the organization.

In addition to learning about the demographics of the audience makeup, I’m also want to check to see if there are any major events within the organization that are impacting the people as a group.  Upcoming mergers,  recent public scandal, loss of a key leader – all will effect the audience and the way they’ll respond to outsiders.   What I often do is ask “Is there anything else going on within the organization that I should know about?  For instance, if you’ve had a board member die in a plane crash recently, I certainly wouldn’t want to make any jokes about flying.  Is there anything going on in your organization that I should know about?”  People usually understand then why I’m asking.  Most of the time, there’s nothing.  But if there is, you definitely want to know so you don’t alienate your audience from you or your valuable content.

More to Come

Speaking to expected audience members will help you better prepare for your presentation.  But what if you don’t have that luxury?  What if you ask but don’t get any help from the person who asked you to speak?  What can you do to maximize your success when you arrive and find that surprise audience?  That will be the topic for tomorrow’s post.



  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] 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.) […]