Friday, June 26, 2009

Who is listening to you?

When you come from a family the size of ours (23 siblings between my wife and I), you have to choose which events you can reasonably attend. Of the five possible graduations this season, we were able to go to the Mt. Greylock High School graduation of a niece and the master’s graduation of a sister-in-law from California State University in Bakersfield.

While both events were completely different in scope and circumstance, they were both celebrations of academic and life achievement. What really struck me about the two events was the content and delivery of the two commencement speakers. The university speaker spoke about the challenging California budget environment and the cuts in services that will result. The tone was somber and perhaps a little defensive. The high-school speaker was light hearted, spoke to the students about achievements and opportunity and recognized the families for their contributions.

While reflecting later on the flight home, it occurred to me the difference might have been who the speaker in each case considered to be their audience. The university speaker may have thought the audience to be tax payers (which was true) but they were not in the auditorium as such at that moment. The high school speaker believed the audience to be successful students and proud families. That simple difference created a completely different message, tone and event.

Careful thought of your audience and the purpose of their attendance is a critical element for a leader to understand to communicate successfully. Even if a message “should” be told, if the audience is not there to hear it, the after talk will be more about the inappropriateness than the facts of the presentation.

Have you seen good speakers gone bad based on missing the audience? What lessons have you learned?


Fred Szibdat said...

Hi John,

Yes, I've seen a number of them, who were good and just missed the mark. A recent example, was the installation of a new Parish Priest, at a local church. The Bishop, (no relation, ha ha), didn't spend one moment, on the new priest, who was brought up in that parish. Nor did he speak about Father's day, and the Proud Father in attendance for his Son's installation. Nor did he talk about our Father. Nor about why priests are called Father.

This Bishop, seemed to be totally out of focus and spent time talking about the Good Sheperd, and then kind of kept repeating the Baltimore Catechism. Which, I kind of recalled having to memorize 1000 questions for Confirmation. ANd then his homily, went off on a GodSpell riff like the song "Day by Day", THen kind of berating the folks who don't go to church. And John, I was in church.

And I reflected with my girlfriend, that here he was among the faithful and totally missed the mark. Something I've not seen from a Catholic Bishop.

It was so disappointing. He had a crowd that was eager to hear about the new Pastor. And we kind of got scolded in return.

I know, you probably wanted a different topic. But this was a good example in my eyes, and well, this speaker, totally missed the mark. Instead of being uplifted and being among folks of a shared faith. We walked out shaking our heads.

Tony Noe said...

I think we all have seen the failure of a speaker to remember who they are talking to, as well as a person in a small group forget who they are talking to. The lessons we should learn, and I hope I have, is to think before we speak.
Take the small group over lunch, talking about buying the new car or taking a great vacation trip when someone at the lunch table just got laid off, is not going to be well received.
Likewise a speaker to a large group, for example the keynote speaker over a lunch at the International ISM Conference who starts his speech out with 'Purchasing agents are the root of the current economic situation because they outsource' loses his audience very quickly.
On the political end it is even more common, but we see it from a different perspective, 'why did he say this here but said that there'. Simple answer different audiences who wanted to hear different things.
If we want to speak in fron tof a group we must remember two things, what is the occasion and who is in the audience. The graduation speakers are great examples. One connects, one is a failure and considered boring.
In business it is very critical to keep this lesson in mond.
Good discussion topic.

Anonymous said...

Hi John - A couple months ago I was attending a presentation given by someone who was supposed to be an industry expert on Project Management (PhD, PMP, etc.) This guy spent most of the presentation time stating bad jokes. The audience was engineer types and their acceptance was short because they had expectations that weren't met and it was on company time. Personally, even though I laughed at a couple of his jokes, I couldn't put my finger on his message. It was really to bad.

When presenting I agree you need to keep people interested, but if your message is a good / necessary one you shouldn't need so many fillers.

Dale said...

Very well put John!
Never let your own insecuritys or worries diminish the real topic at hand.


Catherine (Katey) Casab said...

I have a few to choose from: high school, practical nursing diploma, AAS, BS, and MS. The two I remember most are high school and BS.
My high school speaker gave a hilarious talk on the dangers of too much choice with the message to simplify your life so that you have time to spend on the really important things. I remember the message although only bits and pieces of the actual presentation. (paraphrase: when I went to school, we went downstairs and mom said, "get your school clothes on", no choice, no decision, you wore the school pants with the school shirt. Now mom opens the sock drawer and says do you want the green ones, the black ones, the .....

When I got my B.S. degree, the speaker was a politician running for office who shall remain nameless. He gave a campaign speech about how he knew the answers to all of our ills. It was long and dull. Since he did not seem to not realize that this particular day was not about him, I decided he probably would not listen to his constituents and did not vote for him. Think of how all the people who were not elligible to vote for him felt.
Lesson - it's about the audience. First rule of presentation - tell your audience what is in it for them.

Chris Walden said...

John very good point! How often do we see presentations whereby the presenter misses their audience because of a personal or hidden agendas? The occasion should be respected as should the work. My wife is a teacher at a Country Day School in Savannah and all too often we see speakers and walk away wondering why did they ask him/her to speak and why that topic?

In life, I have learned to step back and look at a presentation and/or speech and ask what will the audience get out of the information presented? I ensure that the message I want to convey is easily understood.

Anna DeBattiste said...

Great story about the importance of not only knowing who your audience is, but letting that knowledge influence your choice of material. I saw a comedian once at a "ladies night" function in the mountains of Colorado. She spoke to us as if we were "valley girls" from southern California instead of outdoorsy types who have chosen to live somewhere where winter lasts for 8 months. All the jokes were about dating and cosmetic surgery. She was so bad that many of us walked out.

Samuel Gutierrez said...

For all of us who have depended on managing and motivating the human factor, your comment brings light to a very important factor.

Having a clear message in mind and transmitting it with passion is critical to engage the audience. The most experienced speakers have previously analyzed the audience, environment and motivations.

It's curious that not always the best speakers are the best leaders. I have had the opportunity to meet most opinion leaders who excelled at public but in personal reflect lack of confidence.

Amitabha Sengupta said...


Much depends on who is the center of focus: is it the speaker or is it the audience? I remember the lecture of a famous University Professor on Political Thoughts. He would talk in a nasal monotone, sometimes mumbling , most of the time averting the eyes of the students.But students from different discipline would always flock to hear him , and his wisdom laden words would be collected like jewels.

In sharp contrast are some of the speeches made by political leaders.Some of them would take great trouble to play down their Harvard persona to acquire a common man's vocabulery and mannerism to elicit thunderous applause. What reservoir do they draw from:genuine empathy or cynical calculation? Only they can tell.

Milton Rivera Manga said...

Absolutely Scott. Listening is also asking questions, summarizing, confirming you have or are understood and parafrasing !
A good post. We say in Spain: "tienes madera"

Brian Harrison Smith said...

Knowing your audience is fundamental to making an effective presentation of speech. This means you must invest time researching who you will be talking to and what would make them listen to you. It's awful to here a presenter who is totally out of touch with the audience

Tom Magness said...

Great stuff, John. Knowing your audience is certainly the fundamental element of success in presentations, public speaking, and general communication. What a great reminder to all of us in the arena. Step one: know your audience. Understand context. Then communicate your ideas within that framework. Hooah! TM

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