22 March 2023

Presentation Skill #2

The audience’s ‘Why’

In this chapter, I will explain one of the key issues to keep in mind when you prepare and deliver your presentation: How to keep focused on your audience’s needs and wants. To illustrate this point, I have borrowed Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’, which was originally designed for something else entirely, but which is very useful to illustrate the value of audience-oriented communication.

Before we move on to how this is useful in presentations, let me first explain the model. Most of us work from the outside and towards the middle, i.e., from ‘What’ to ‘How’ and then – sometimes – on to ‘Why’. This means that we often ask ourselves what it is we are going to do, and more often than not, the answer is that we are going to do a presentation on a specific topic to a specific audience. Then we ask how we are going to do that, and the answer to this question is all too often to produce a PowerPoint-presentation, perhaps with a bit of group work here and there, showing a video, print some handouts and so on. And when we do things this way, we use the tools we have at hand, things that we are familiar with, and that we think would be a safe and comfortable way to deliver our presentation.

As for the ‘Why’, the answer is all too often either that we do the presentation because we were asked to do it, that the topic is something that interests us, or that we get paid to do it. But this is using the model from the outside in, because we start with ourselves, with our familiar territory, and with our own perceptions of what is important, interesting and relevant. We build our presentation on our own preconceived notions about the topic, and on what we find to be motivational or inspirational.

However, when we do this, it is highly likely that the presentation we deliver is less than all it could be in terms of value and outcome for the audience, because the presentation is not based on what they think or want or need.

The point is that the model must be read from the centre out, if we aim to truly engage with the audience. This means we go from Why to How to What. So ask yourself what the audience’s ‘why’ might be. Why do they show up for this presentation at all? What do they expect to take home from the presentation? What do they want and what do they need? Where are they coming from in terms of knowledge, organisation, emotions etc.? And How will you incorporate these insights into your presentation, so that it strikes home and maximises the learning, improves motivation, shares knowledge and so on? What and how many arguments, examples, types of information and narratives are relevant for the mission, i.e., to make certain that the audience takes exactly the information you want them to from the presentation?

This approach is equally useful if you aim to communicate a need for changes that may have sprung from yourself or from someone in a higher level of management. In such a case, it is also key that the communication is designed with the audience in mind, in order for them to buy-in to the message in the presentation. It is crucial that you communicate the need for a process, even one that your audience may not want or need, in terms of the way they see the world, and with arguments they might have come up with themselves.

Once you have identified the worldviews and perspectives of your audience as well as you can, you can ask yourself how exactly to communicate your message. You will find that it is easy to answer this question, once you have pinpointed the purpose. What does it take in terms of arguments, points and theories, and in terms of practical tools such as PowerPoints, group work, practical exercises, handouts, videos and so on, to match their needs and perceptions? And how should you order the elements of the presentation? What setup and pay-off (see chapters 11 and 18) will best address the audience’s ‘Why’?

If you genuinely want to engage your audience, the ‘How’ is much more difficult to work with without a well-defined ‘Why’ to work from. On the other hand, once you know what is expected of you, you can easily plan your work process. Your own ‘What’ is no longer a distraction, because it takes third place to the Why and the How.

And yes, it is not always straightforward to identify the target audience as one uniform group. Often, the audience varies in terms of knowledge, and there may be many different, and sometimes contradicting, expectations at play. But you have to understand the audience as well as you can in order to determine how to bring your points across to different people at the same time.

The audience’s ‘Why’ should, in other words, inform the core of your presentation. Remember that the audience is always right. The more accurately you target their level and expectations, the more of your own agenda you will see succeed.

So you should familiarize yourself with your audience’s needs, and ask yourself what type of argument would work on you, if you were in their situation. What would make the audience motivated, buy your product, have an epiphany, learn something new, commit to a major change etc. etc.? What, exactly, is the one key issue for the audience, the one that is more important, profound and valuable than anything else? What is the one thing that will redirect the audience, with their specific background, needs and perceptions, in the direction you want?

That is a simple and very valuable key to preparing and delivering your presentation. The trick is to focus, not on what you find interesting, relevant and motivational, but on your audience’s level, expectations and needs.

In closing, I would like to introduce you to a figure to help you get to grips with the audience’s ‘Why’ that is called ‘Cicero’s rhetorical pentagram’. This figure allows you to analyse your audience and their situation from five different viewpoints. Each of the five points are connected to each of the other four, and so none of them can be understood in isolation. Should one of them change, all the others will

Very simply put, these are the things you have to consider as you work your way through this figure:

  • Audience: Who am I speaking to? What do they know, how do they feel about it, and what are their expectations? What is their ‘Why’ in relation to this topic?
  • Language: What type of language works with this audience? What kind of mood do we want? How much jargon should I use? What type of language is suitable for the purpose of the presentation?
  • Setting: What is the context? What is the emotional state of the audience? Why do they come to this event? Is there anything in particular that can taint their perception of me as speaker or of the presentation in general?
  • Topic: What is the purpose? Why is it relevant for the audience? What do I as speaker and they as audience hope to achieve?
  • Speaker: What does the audience expect of me as a speaker? What do they think when they see me? Do I have credibility with this audience, and what role does that play?

Key Questions in the Preparation:

  • What is my audience’s ‘Why’?
  • What questions do they expect to have answered in this presentation?
  • How do I motivate them in recognition of their ‘Why’?

Written by Andre Babikian


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