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Surprise – Not Always the Best Thing When It Comes to Your Audience…Part 1


Kathy’s story is similar to so many other’s that I’d heard before.

“I was at [Major Fortune 500 Technology Company] and I was the intermediary between the customers and IT.  We were rolling out a new product and they asked me to go a big meeting in Houston to talk about the new product.”

“Your audience will be 30 sales guys, so keep it really high level.” At least, that’s what Kathy was told.

Her first indication that something was off was when she entered the hotel conference room where the meeting was being held and saw the set up.  “I can talk in front of a group of 30 people.  But this was one of those big ballrooms, you know, with the dividers… and the dividers were open.”  The talk was not in front of 30 people.  It was in front of 100 people.  “I started to freak out.  I got sweaty.  I was soooo nervous.”

Kathy was presenting with another colleague and they discovered that their audience wasn’t sales guys.  They were technical guys.  They started asking questions Kathy and her partner were neither prepared nor able to answer.  “It was a disaster.”  She can laugh about it now.  But it wasn’t funny then.  “We always do the feedback forms after one of these meetings, you know.  And when we saw our feedback forms after the session, every single one of them lambasted us.   We had the lowest scores possible. And it was a two-day conference… we had to do the same presentation the next day!

Word spread through the meeting about how awful the presentation was.  The next day, when Kathy showed up at the meeting room, there were only 30 people in the large conference room…and none of them were her presentation partner.  Kathy gave the presentation alone.  “My colleague was so devastated by the reviews, that he went home!  He wasn’t even there to present with me the next day!”

“Wow…” I said, “Somebody didn’t do you any favors when they told you who you’d be speaking to.”

It’s All about the Audience

I don’t know if Aristotle was the first to say it or not, but every good speech, every good presentation really is all about the audience.  The reason Kathy’s story was like so many other stories I’d heard was because so many people don’t get good information about their audience.  Kathy seemed set up for failure.  Either through ignorance or maliciousness, the person who told Kathy “Your audience will be 30 sales guys, so keep it really high level,” set her up for failure.  Was there anything Kathy could have done to avoid such a situation?  Was there anything Kathy could have done once she found herself in that situation?

Avoid Being Surprised by an Unexpected Audience

Usually, when someone asks you to speaking in front of a group, they will tell you, as best they can, who the audience will be.  Based on Kathy’s telling of her story, I never got the impression that Kathy felt like someone was sabotaging her presentation.  The person was just wrong about the audience.  Maybe the person who told Kathy about the audience misunderstood the person who asked her to find Kathy and her colleague to speak.  Maybe Kathy misunderstood what was being told to her.  One way to increase your chance of success is to ask the person who is asking you to speak for the names and contact information for 10 people who will likely be at the event.

10 People Likely to Be in the Audience

Early in my business, I’d started the practice of asking for names and contact information of people who would be attending one of my speeches or training sessions.  I learned this best practice from several professionals that I respect and I found the technique extremely helpful in customizing my material for an audience.  When I wooed my first Fortune 500 client, I did the same thing.  As a solo-entrapreneur, getting my first Fortune 500 client was HUGE.  When I asked the manager for names and contact information I sensed hesitation… like this isn’t something she normally get’s asked for.  But I persisted and she gave me the information.  I followed up with the people – and was I ever glad I did!

While speaking with the management organization who brought me in, I knew about the jobs that the people in the audience did for the company.  But what the management didn’t tell me, what I found out from those I interviewed, was that organization’s roles had only recently changed.  The reality of the situation was that the members of my audience were still adjusting to the changes.  The new way the role interacted — well, let’s just say that not all the employees were welcoming the changes — and there were some who felt slighted.  These inter-organizational dynamics impacted how the message the management team wanted me to deliver needed be couched.  Man was I glad I’d done the interviews.  That would have been an awful thing to be surprised with in the session!

Why 10 People?

I ask for 10 people not because I know it’s a magic number.  But because I’ve found that while I ask for 10 names, I’m lucky if I get that many.  And if I get 10 names, I’m never able to hook up with all 10 due to scheduling conflicts.  I usually end out speaking to 5 to 7 people which gives me enough variety to gain the insights I need.

More to Come

Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about what questions to ask those 10 people and what to do if despite your efforts, you still find yourself getting getting a surprise when it comes to your audience.

Until then remember – when it comes to your presentation – it’s not about perfection…it’s about connection!



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SandyWeaverCarman, Kelly Vandever. Kelly Vandever said: Have a presentation coming up? Make sure the audience isn't a surprise. Read Kathy's story and see how to help yourself. http://ht.ly/3HVEr […]

  2. […] don’t have the chance to interview 10 people who are likely to be in the audience (see Parts 1 & 2).  What can you do to avoid the catastrophe that Kathy experienced with 100% negative […]

  3. […] don’t have the chance to interview 10 people who are likely to be in the audience (see Parts 1 & 2).  What can you do to avoid the catastrophe that Kathy experienced with 100% negative […]

  4. […] 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.  […]