I often reiterate to my students, and we read in the leading texts and blogs on this subject, that audience analysis and adaptation are the cornerstones of a strong presentation. However, many of us present with only our goals and needs (and hangups) in mind, leading to the “self-centered approach” (Duarte, 2010) to presenting.
This approach leads to the complete opposite of our goals for the presentation–for our audience to internalize and apply our messages. We want our ideas to spread, our concepts to be adopted, our lessons to be applied, but this cannot happen without one very important shift in thought…
In her latest book (which I am currently devouring), the HBR’s Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Nancy Duarte explains why: “The people you’re addressing will determine whether your idea spreads or dies, simply by embracing or rejecting it” (Duarte, 2012). In essence, to accomplish this, a presenter must take a supporting or mentoring role to the audience–the real hero of the presentation, the one who must take the risk to adopt and apply the presenter’s idea. Heroes, in mythology, literature, and film, have friends, helpers, and mentors (think Yoda and Luke, Gandalf and Frodo, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi) who provide gifts, tools, or much needed rescue.
Keep these three purposes in mind in considering how your goals align with your audience’s (Duarte, 2012):
- Give the hero a special gift (give people insights that will improve their lives)
- Teach the hero to use a “magical” tool (allow people to pick up a new skill or mind-set that empowers them)
- Help the hero get “unstuck” (an idea that gets the audience out of a difficult situation)
Students panic or become frustrated when I ask them who their audience is and explain that the answer cannot be “everyone” or “people” or “students” even. While they can agree that understanding audience and putting audience needs before individual wants/goals/anxieties is important, the process of actually analyzing an audience and then applying that analysis to content building is not easy (especially because they rarely spend time objectively considering these ideas before diving right into PowerPoint or Keynote). Another common anxiety stems from the inability to appeal to every member of the audience.
Audience segmentation, a strategy Duarte discusses in Resonate and the HBR Guide, is one important means by which you can better connect with and audience and move the members towards action or a shift in ideology. Segmentation or analysis generally happens across three areas (for a comprehensive discussion of audience analysis and segmentation, see this Six Minutes article):
- Demographics/Ethnographics (age, education, ethnicity, gender, geography, culture, society)
- Purpose: to learn who the audience is and what common ground there is
- Context/Politics (time/place, power, reason for attendance)
- To discover how environmental and outside factors might affect an audience’s reception of a message.
- Psychographics (beliefs, values, attitudes)
- Purpose: to discover what an audience thinks, knows, and believes about the topic
Answering these questions (What keeps the audience up at night? How might the resist?) may seem difficult or tedious, but the process is guaranteed to lead to a deeper understanding of each member or group of members of the audience. This understanding leads to crafting a message that is tailored to those who 1. would most benefit from the ideas presented, and 2. can help turn the idea into action. So, the purpose of segmentation is really two fold. Segmentation allows presenters to choose the person(s) who is going to help them spread an idea that resonates and helps the presenter determine how to also bring other members of the audience on board. So, even though a presenter should tailor his or her message to this one most useful audience member (or group, i.e. early adopters), he or she should not exclude other members of the audience.
Segmentation in action
In Resonate, Duarte illustrates the power of segmentation through an analysis of Ronald Reagan’s Space Shuttle Challenger speech. In this speech, Reagan expertly weaves between audiences, addressing individual groups all touched by this national tragedy while also leaving the nation with a sense of empowerment and hope.
I share this example with my students, but find that their lack of connection to this event and this president makes it challenging to really help them see segmentation in action. So, as per the advice of my very smart colleague, Alex Rister, I am going to use President Obama’s recent speech on the Sandy Hook school shooting as an example of segmentation in action.
In this 18 minute speech, Obama identifies and addresses specific audiences:
- The families of the victims
- The survivors of the shooting
- The first responders to the scene
- The town of Newton
- The nation as a whole (parents, non-parents, those who support stricter gun control, those who support 1st amendment rights)
The speech focuses on the immediate context (vigil) and places it in the national context (debate over gun control/gun rights). The immediate purpose of the speech is to eulogize the fallen teachers and children of Sandy Hook Elementary, but the greater purpose is to bring this event into the national gun control conversation.
How does Obama do this while still maintaining the immediate purpose? By addressing various members of the audience and then joining them via shared value–the value we all hold for human life, safety, and security. Obama doesn’t exclude the nation from either grief over the loss of life or responsibility for this incident. Instead, he honors the immediate impact of the shooting on Newton and connects this experience to the greater cause at hand.
In depth audience analysis is not easy or quick, but if done thoughtfully and thoroughly, it can help you transform your self-centered message into an audience-centered idea that stays with them long after your presentation ends.