Updated: Mar 6
It's common presentation wisdom that understanding your audience is critical: what are they like?; what are they hoping to get out of your presentation?; what do they know about the topic? It's also common presentation wisdom that it's good to ask questions like these before you give your presentation so that you that you can plan for the best content. So far I agree.
There's a common assumption about audience analysis, though, that is wrong. The assumption is that, if you are thorough and empathetic enough, you can really KNOW your audience before the presentation – that you can know them well enough to anticipate exactly what they will find to be meaningful and relevant. Therefore, understanding your audience is a process you engage in before the presentation and then, when it's time to present, the focus shifts to getting your content out to them.
The first problem with this assumption is that what your audience finds to be meaningful and relevant is not fixed.
It changes. It changes because their situation changes. The information they have changes. Whether they are tired or hungry or distracted – it all changes. Sometimes the changes are big, like when I facilitated a workshop for a group that had just learned that their company was about to layoff a large number of employees. What I expected to be calm and focused listeners were exactly anxious and distracted ones. More often the changes are small, like when someone in the audience asks a thought-provoking question and listeners move from being trusting to skeptical.
You make mistakes.
The second problem is that you, the presenter, may simply have an inaccurate understanding of what your listeners find meaningful and relevant. A solar panel salesperson once gave me a full 30-minute pitch about their panels, where they were made, the warranty, the installation process, etc. What was really relevant to me was how long it would take for me to recoup my investment in the panels. I had already done my research on the other stuff. He assumed I would find all that other stuff meaningful and relevant to my buying decision. I didn't.
"Audience Analysis" never ends.
Is it a good idea to do some audience analysis before a presentation? Absolutely. But it's also a good idea to continue to seek out what is meaningful and relevant to your listeners while you are speaking to them. This may mean asking questions – listening with your ears. It definitely means staying attuned to their subtle responses and reactions to what you say – listening with your eyes. Be curious. Look for clues. Knowing your audience is an ongoing effort.