Start with the audience

On Tue 19th Sep 2017 by Geoff Hodge

Start with the audience

I had to give a presentation at work recently. It was being videoed (or whatever the modern, digital term is) and broadcast to several other offices and many people were watching. I was item two on the agenda and waiting for the person presenting item one to finish. As I looked around the room, I noticed signs that people were bored. Not just one or two, but everyone in the room. I could see the webcam showing one of our other offices – they were bored too.

The signs were there – people looking around the room, doodling, holding their head in their hands, picking out their ear with the end of a biro or flossing their teeth (don't judge me). When people are bored, they switch off – they stop listening.

So what was he doing wrong? I realised that he had made a classic mistake. Rather then telling people what they wanted to hear, he'd told them what he wanted to say.

This doesn't mean changing the facts so they match what the audience want, but it does mean thinking about what the audience want to know and what will interest them. For example, if you're talking about dog training, your audience probably care more about how to get Fido to sit, rather than the psychology of why your technique works, no matter how interesting you find it.

At Toastmasters, you typically have between 5 and 7 minutes to get your message across. When you're new to Toastmasters, this seems like an awfully long time. When you're more experienced, you'll realise it really isn't long at all.

Concentrate on what message your audience want will want to hear about your chosen topic, not what you think will be interesting to tell them. If you're not sure what this is, take a look at your topic and ask what questions the audience will ask, then answer them.

Let's take dog training as an example. As the owner of an unruly dog, my questions will probably be:

  • How can I stop my dog weeing in the house?
  • How can I make my dog behave?
  • How can I make my dog do a simple trick?

It's unlikely to be about Pavlov's dog and how that lead to Pavlovian conditioning in animals. Save that for your psychology talk.

When you've written your speech, or you plan, why not ask your mentor to look it through to check if you're being boring or drifting off topic – a good mentor will help pick out those areas where you can improve and suggest ways to bring it back on topic, or just what to cut.

In all cases, ask yourself before and after you've written your speech – have I told people what they want to know, or am I just talking at them

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