The hardest audience I ever spoke to was also the easiest.
Here’s how it happened:
Several years ago, I got a call from the President of the National Aircraft Resellers Association (NARA), an exclusive group of successful aircraft brokers and dealers, asking if I would speak at their anual meeting in Puerto Vallarta, a resort town in Mexico.
Would I ever!
She assured me that NARA’s members were great guys (they are all guys), and would be very interested in my speech on “Messages that Close the Deal,” even though they were pretty different from my usual audience members.
Not Every Audience Is Like You!
“Different” is putting if mildly!
- The group was 98% Republican. I wasn’t going to be telling any uplifting stories about President Obama.
- Its members were primarily Southerners. I’m from New England, where we have a superiority complex about other regions of the country.
- They were all white. I’m white myself (as you noticed from my picture), but had never spoken to an all-white audience before.
- I never found out how many of them are Jewish, like me, but it seemed reasonable to estimate the number at… zero.
- As mentioned, they were all male (though their wives would be present), and last but definitely not least,
- Many were former jet pilots; that’s why they’re great at selling used aircraft.
From my studies of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), I had reason to believe that most NARA members were in the Experiencer Public Speaking Personality. Experiencers are action-oriented, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and practical.
As a quasi New York intellectual who writes books and obsesses about feelings, I’m as far away from the Experiencer mindset as you can get.
What Do You Do When Your Audience Feels Alien?
There are two ways to approach any audience, including one that feels like a stretch:
- Lots of great public speakers (like Tony Robbins or Benjamin Zander, who I know from music school) have a highly-effective “stump speech” that they give to every audience.
- Others (like National Speakers Association superstar Patricia Fripp, or me) routinely customize to a particular audience’s needs.
If you’re in the first group, you can pack your bags after a call booking your services. But since I planned to customize, I had a lot of work to do before heading down to sunny Mexico.
To Learn About the People You’ll Be Talking To, Ask the Experts — Them!
First, I needed to learn about my audience’s actual business challenges, so that I could offer them practical, helpful advice. Through NARA’s President, I contacted three of the group’s broker-dealers by phone, and asked for a primer on their business.
This is always a fun exercise, because most people who are good at their jobs have great stories to tell. (That’s how they got good; by surviving the crazy situations that make great stories.) If you’ve never done this kind of audience interview, don’t hesitate; it isn’t hard. All you have to do is say, “Tell me about your business” and most people are off and running.
In the case of NARA, every person I spoke with was both delightful and eager to help. I learned about:
- How to buy a $6.5 million Lear jet on the Internet;
- The guy who refused to insure his new aircraft, which then got hit with a hail storm while it sat on the tarmac (resulting in $75,000 of non-covered damages, but I guess that’s chump change if you own a jet); and
- How a NARA member got clearance to bring relief supplies into Haiti during the hurricane by waking up the head of the U.S. National Guard troops who were stationed there.
Those calls led to three more, and by the time I was done I had spoken to ten people and developed a rudimentary sense of what a life in the aviation business might be like. I’d also collected stories and specifics that would make my speech more relevant to this group.
Most importantly, as I got to know and admire the people I was speaking with, I realized that my list of things we didn’t have in common paled beside the list of things we did:
- They love adventure; so do I.
- They’re entrepreneurs; so am I.
- They provide a service that helps their customers work more effectively; so do I.
- They build long-term client relationships; so do I.
- And they were looking forward to my speech; so, at this point, was I!
What had I been so worried about??
You’ll Never Go Wrong by Getting to Know Your Audience
How do you connect with your audience before a speech?
Some people (they’re called “extraverts“) accomplish this by showing up early at their speaking event and mingling. Others get an attendee list and start build relationships in advance through Facebook or Linked In. Still others — introverts like me — like to build their knowledge and establish relationships by phone.
Whatever method you choose, know that your investment is going to pay off. As you get to know your audience better, you’ll speak to them more effectively:
- Your ideas will be more on point for their needs;
- You’ll approach them with more warmth and openness; and
- You’ll be able to share what you enjoy and admire about them.
All of this adds up to more fun for everyone.
And that includes you — even if you’re not an Experiencer!
Buy 100 Top Public Speaking Tips: The Book!
In 25 years of speaker coaching, I’ve helped my individual speaker coaching clients develop their strengths and skills to become authentic and effective communicators.
Along the way, I’ve developed tips for everything from small talk to speaking up in meetings, from managing fear to making an impact.
And now, I’ve shared it all in 100 Top Public Speaking Tips: The Book. This beautifully designed PDF booklet is searchable, clickable, and categorized, so that you can find what you need, instantly.