People speak very differently depending on their audience. You might tell your friends things that you would never share with your families—and you use very different language with your colleagues than you do at home.
This filtering—or catering to different audiences—is something you do naturally, without even thinking about it. However, you’re less likely to apply the same logic when speaking in front of a group.
Why? Because one of the most frightening things about public speaking is that you’re standing up in front of a room full of strangers. It’s very hard to know the right thing to say at a networking event, when faced with small groups of three or four people you’ve never met. Selecting the best topic, theme, or content for 20, 200, or 500 people is even harder.
The trick is getting to know your audience. In fact, it’s the number one thing you should do before you agree to headline an event, choose a topic, or embark on your research.
You’re probably thinking: This is crazy advice—I don’t have time to get to know 200 people! You’re right, you don’t. And you don’t need to know them in a what they had for breakfast kind of way. You do need to know why they’re at the event and what they want to hear.
Here are five questions to ask to help you get to know your audience before you walk in the room.
1. What Kind of People Will Be in the Room?
If the event organizer doesn’t know who’ll be there, ask for the attendee list. If it doesn’t exist yet, ask for the list from the previous year’s event. You’ll be able to see from the job titles and companies what the level and industry of the audience is.
Ask yourself: Are these the kinds of people I should be speaking to? Are they potential clients or customers? Are they potential investors? If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” think carefully about why you’re agreeing to the event. Preparing a presentation or a speech takes a long time, and delivering it takes huge emotional energy. Only expend time and energy on public speaking gigs that deliver your message to your target audience.
2. What’s the Theme of the Event or Conference?
Make sure you know what the theme is and how your presentation connects with it. This sounds like an obvious one, but all too often it’s a question that’s forgotten. If everyone’s turning up to hear about innovation and you want to talk about customer service, this is probably the wrong event for you.
However, if you can find a way to talk about innovation in customer service, you could be onto a winner. The theme tells you why people are going to the event. So, naturally, the audience will be more interested in what you have to say if you give them new insights on the topic they’ve signed up to learn about.
3. What Are They Most Afraid Of?
This sounds like a strange question to ask an event organizer, but it’s a really important one. At different times, it’s likely you’ll find yourself speaking to people from different industries, professions, or at very different stages in their career—and your approach should vary accordingly.
For example, if you’re a go-to tech expert, it might be that in many rooms, everyone nods when you discuss upcoming trends. But what about an audience that’s new to the game? If they’re afraid that they’re already behind the curve, you’ll isolate them by diving in headfirst. But, if you know their fears, you can include additional context and explanation, making them feel comfortable and delivering a more impactful speech.
4. What Are They Excited About?
Now that you know who’s in the room and what they might be afraid of, try and find out what gets them excited. If it’s an industry that you’re less familiar with, ask the event organizer or an industry expert if there are any big trends to be aware of.
As you may know, storytelling is a big trend in speechwriting and presentations at the moment—and it’s one I personally use to generate excitement. Another insider tip is discussing the latest thing. Try to give your audience some new insight to take back to the office and share with their colleagues. (Bonus: It will also position you as a thought leader who’s ahead of the curve.)
5. Who Do You Respond To?
Don’t forget to learn from your own experience as an audience member! If someone hooked you with a great story, think about which of your experiences you could use in a similar way. If someone bored you to tears with a presentation of 60 slides, keep your deck to no more than 10. If you need inspiration, watch some TED talks or Toastmasters speeches online. You’ll soon learn what you like, what you don’t, and why. Copy what you like and ditch the rest: It will help you develop your own unique style as a speaker.
Getting to know your audience is critical for public speaking success. It will help you make better decisions about which gigs to agree to and which to sidestep. It will help you to find the right content for the room, and it will act as a guide for how to present it.
And with these five questions, you can get to know the audience without ever even meeting them.