Audience First: The biggest secret to a memorable presentation

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By Jason Thomson

“OK, so, here’s what I want to talk about.”

I meet with 75 or so presenters every year to help them craft talks, presentations, fireside chats and panels, and this is often the first set of words a speaker shares.

This is a problem, and it’s big enough to derail your entire presentation.

Many speakers think about presentations as moments of tell, as in, “I have something to tell the audience.” But the truth is, presentations are moments of sell. You’re selling the audience a new idea so that they’ll think differently, perceive differently or act differently. You want something to change as a result of your presentation.

Moments of sell mean that you have to think less about your content and more about what it takes to move your audience. In short, it’s about figuring out what it takes to persuade your audience, which doesn’t start with what you want to say. Instead it starts entirely with your audience — who they are, what biases they have, and the sales cycle it takes to activate your message.

Asking the Right Questions

When I give keynotes on presenting, I constantly remind my audience that it’s not what they sell; it’s how their audience buys. I see leaders ignore this during a lot of internal corporate events like national sales meetings. They spend time draining, or over explaining or lecturing the audience about the year ahead, and lecturing a group of adults rarely generates the right kind of action.

Good presenters start by asking the question, “What does it take to win?” What does it take to win over an audience that’s distracted? What does it take to win over an audience that might disagree with your message? What does it take to win over competing interests and agendas?

Knowing the Audience

I find that I’m using increasingly sophisticated and novel ways to understand who an audience is and what they want from a presentation. For small conferences, I actually go through the available attendee list, think about who might be at the presentation, and specifically target individual attendees by connecting on LinkedIn or researching their organizations. I even tailor my language to the audience, using Google Analytics and an understanding of specific SEO terms to better shape my delivery.

I’ve even gotten into the habit of walking the lineup waiting to get into a presentation I’m personally giving. I introduce myself and ask each person what they want to get out of the session. I moderated a program for a blockchain company during C2 Montreal. By walking the line, I found that most attendees were still confused by what blockchain was. I shared that with one of the presenters, who quickly added a few paragraphs on the topic — delivering more of what the audience wanted in the first place.

Mapping the Sales Cycle

If you think of your presentation as a sale (you should) and you think of your audience as your buyer (you definately should), use the same tools marketers do to move an audience.

Marketers call it a sales cycle, or more frequently, a customer journey map. This is the list of steps that are required to move a customer from awareness through to purchasing decision. You can do the same thing. You can figure out what you need to do, say or how you say it to the different groups of your audience in order to create the outcome you want from your presentation. Want your audience to take a specific action? based on your understanding of the audience, map out the key elements required to get them there.

Presentations are more than words on a PowerPoint slide. They are sophisticated sales designed to build awareness around you, your company, or a new initiative. I truly understanding and deliver in with the audience wants, you have a much better chance of using that presentation to achieve a goal, instead of just pushing content.

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