How to (really) get to know your audience


July 27, 2022

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson made a TED Talk titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?

It lasted less than 20 minutes. But in the 15 years since, over 70 million people have viewed it, becoming the most popular TED Talk of all time. 

But why? 🤔

The answer is simple. Instead of talking and lecturing his audience, Robinson connects with them on a deeper level. He encourages the crowd to challenge their preexisting beliefs and set aside their biases to imagine education from another point of view. 

It's a great lesson for how a speaker connects with their audience—by making it about them. 

This guide will discuss the relationship speakers have with their audience and how you can connect with them on a deeper level to influence their thinking. 

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

Understanding the role of the audience and the speaker

Presentations can make speakers feel powerful—but they can also have a selfish approach to the audience. 

Speakers can forget why they're making a presentation in the first place. We talk about ourselves, our products, and our inward view of the world. The result is that we forget to connect the presentation to the audience's needs and concerns.

Avoiding this is vital if you want your presentation to land and engage with your audience. 

The best way to do it? Remind yourself that you are not the hero that will save the audience—the audience is the hero. Always. 

Presentations should not be about what you want to say but what the audience wants to hear. To help your audience meet their needs and add value to their experience, you must switch to a mentor role and make it about them. 

The role of a mentor as a speaker

To evolve into a mentor during a speech or presentation, push yourself to identify what ideas your audience will cherish. 

Is there a valuable insight about a process or product you can connect to their pain points?

Is there a methodology your audience could use to solve a problem?

In other words, consider what problems or barriers your audience is most concerned about and anchor your message around them. If you can make the presentation about them and help address their biggest concerns—you'll become a mentor they can trust, and your words will resonate with them. 

Why segmenting audiences leads to greater impact

Most Americans remember where they were on January 28, 1986. 

On that fateful day, the US Space Shuttle Challenger disaster instantly killed seven people.  

The disaster was being shown across the country, with millions of Americans huddled around televisions and radios to mark the historic occasion. One study found 17% of the country’s population watched the launch (and explosion) live, while almost 85% of Americans had heard the news of the tragedy within an hour. 

America’s leader at the time, President Ronald Reagan, had a tough task that evening when he addressed the country. He split his evening speech into four segments: 

  1. Family. He addressed the families of the crew members and shared condolences. This started his address on a deeply empathetic level. 
  2. Children. He then addressed the nation's youngest segment, many of whom had watched the tragedy at school earlier in the day. He gave a message of hope by sharing the lesson of bravery. 
  3. NASA. He acknowledged the dedication of NASA workers and referenced the ingenuity of the country’s space program. He assured them their efforts would not go to waste despite the tragedy. 
  4. The country. Reagan spoke to Americans as a whole and talked with empathy to strike an emotional chord with the country and help them deal with the pain of the disaster. 

In less than five minutes, Reagan's national address became one of the most significant speeches in modern memory. Over a decade later, 137 leading scholars of American public address voted it in the top 10 most important speeches of the century based on its social and political impact and rhetorical artistry.

President Reagan during his address to the nation. Image source

So, what can you learn from Reagan’s address to connect with your audience?

Here are some Prezent pro tips:

  • Don't just speak to a faceless mass. People come from different backgrounds. They have different needs that are inspired by different messages. Recognize that every audience is different, and craft a unique pitch depending on who you're speaking to and what you want to achieve.  
  • Segment your audience based on your business context. The divide and conquer technique allows you to personalize portions of your speech, so it resonates with your audience. Think of what topics matter to each segment of your team and deliver the relevant message to them. 

Expert Corner: Pro poker player Alec Torelli uses social cues to win

Here's something that may surprise you. 

According to pro poker player Alec Torelli, the most important thing in poker isn’t the cards you have in your hand—but your knowledge of what your opponent is holding. 

Torelli during a pro poker match. Image source

"To win, one needs to understand what others are thinking, what makes them tick, and ultimately how they see the world," he says.

Poker players do this by intensely observing every little detail, where anything (and everything) is a clue. Torelli says he uses physical tells to help him understand what other players are thinking. 

“Shaking hands while betting signals a strong holding. And how someone dresses, walks or carries themselves all shed a glimpse into the type of player they are."

These small (yet significant) signs can help you far beyond the poker table. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes can help you recognize what's important to them and how to connect with them as an audience. Torelli says if you understand who you're speaking to and how they like to absorb information, it'll be easier to deliver a message and keep them engaged. 

Just like during a game of pro poker, you can do this by paying careful attention to your audience and picking up on cues like: 

  • A nod or smile. A telltale sign you're on the right track, and that your ideas are being well received by the audience. 
  • A glance down or away. A sign you're not connecting with the crowd, or they've understood your point but want to move on to the next topic. 

Torelli’s final word of advice? Be ready to change things up and adapt to your audience. 

“Just like a poker player faults when the timing is wrong, ensure you can quickly pivot throughout your talk,” he says. 

“Regardless of what you're doing, attempting to see the world from the other person's point of view will help you to win the game.” 

Every audience is different. The right techniques help you understand them. 

The best presentations are engaging and helpful, but these can only be delivered if the speaker puts the audience first. 

Giving a presentation isn't about you; it's about the people you're speaking to. There are many different ways to connect and engage with them, like segmenting the audience into different categories or addressing their problems by speaking directly to their needs. 

One aspect of speaking will always be true—every audience is different. Think about how you will speak to them, what challenges you will address, and most importantly, how you’ll pivot throughout the talk to ensure it’s engaging and grabs their attention. 

Want to learn more speaking techniques? Check out Prezent's detailed guide on storytelling.