Doing the proper research on the audience before delivering a meaningful message is a crucial part of the preparation process. How well you understand your audience affects the quality and success of your message. Understanding your audience means writing from your reader’s point of view so that the format, organization, content, and style of your message fits what the audience expects.
The Power in Knowing Your Audience
Throughout my academic and professional career, I have learned that there is power in understanding your audience. Being able to engage my audience effectively means I have to prepare early and conduct the proper research on my audience. What I have come to find is that no two audiences are the same. When I am engaging with an audience, whether it be for a presentation, a panel, a briefing, or a networking event, there are multiple factors about my audience I have to consider: age, education, profession, venue, etiquette, prestige, and mood, for example. Throughout my academic career, I have hosted and moderated countless presentations, panel discussions, and workshops--each one vastly different than the other. For example, when acting as a moderator for a keynote speaker or panel discussion, I have to think about my engagement on two fronts: my participation with the speaker, and my involvement with the audience. Alternatively, when conducting a briefing or presentation, I only have to focus on one front: the audience. However, for each scenario, I have to make sure all of my verbal and non-verbal communications are framed and interpreted well to conduct a smooth conversation. I have to be assertive, clear, knowledgeable, and intentional the entire way through. When I find myself scheduled for a speaking engagement, I like to model my content based on several questions.
Developing a Gameplan for Your Audience
Why is my audience attending my presentation? Is this presentation being held at a conference? Chances are my audience is familiar with this material, and I can, therefore, focus on presenting innovative research (which is probably why I was asked to present in the first place). Alternatively, is the speaking engagement part of a panel discussion? Then perhaps I should deliver my contentions clearly and succinctly, providing an overview of the information and save the in-depth material for the panel discussion. However, if I am hosting a policy briefing, perhaps I should be clear and concise. I should utilize the data that has been gathered and speak in a way that is understandable both audibly and intellectually. There most likely is no need to be overly academic in my language. If the presentation for stakeholders or investors, I should make an effort to be clear, concise, and, most of all, honest. I should focus on the data at hand and practice the art of the BLUF. If I am hosting something akin to a dissertation or defense, then I am confident my committee knows the material inside and out. I should emphasize being clear, utilizing the data, and being knowledgable about my content.
Best Practices and Methods for Connecting with Your Audience
I should also know the makeup of my audience. For instance, if there is a generational divide, it would be best for me to stay neutral and refrain from attempting to be "relevant" in my approach. I should also read the room and acknowledge whether they are willing to engage and "be a part" of the presentation, or if the audience is simply there to take note of the content. I should also know whether the audience consists of career academics or those who are "in the field", and adjust my approach and language as such. I should also perform research on what presentations work best for the organization, conference, or team seeing the exhibition. For instance, I could utilize the Admiral Stavridis method and only use visual slides, therefore forcing the audience to listen as opposed to reading. Alternatively, I could utilize a standard method found in academia, where the slides are all words with little to no visual reference so that the audience can take notes and refer to the slide for further assistance. Lastly, I could virtually eliminate both options and instead perform a live exhibition of the research I have been working on, therefore engaging with the audience and showing first hand the results of my study.
Frames and Interpretation for Your Audience
Answering questions such as these are only the foundation. To truly practice effective communication, I have to know how to formulate the message. Not only do I have to balance data, wording, syntax, grammar, and overall clarity, but I also have to take into account the framing and interpretation of my communications. Taking these two factors into account can make or break my intended message. Not only is this a matter of being accountable for how I communicate verbally and non-verbally, but also how and where the collected data is used in the message. For instance, I have to avoid underestimating my audience and, therefore, not giving them the information they need to make an informed decision. Still, I also have to prevent overestimating my audience, and thus giving them too much information and forcing them into decision paralysis? Understanding how my message comes across to others and being able to simulate the framing and interpretation from their point of view is a critical skill. Due to my time in academia and the professional world, I have had the privilege to practice over many years, and therefore effectively address the issue of communication as a practice.