Know Your Audience, No Matter the Audience

December 19, 2019
6 Minutes
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Strong communications skills are a must-have for any aspiring executive; and leaders in small-scale SaaS businesses need to be comfortable in a range of messaging situations. In these intimate, dynamic businesses, public speaking represents a major slice of a leader’s communications responsibilities. Executives’ speaking duties can take many forms, with a main one being at trade shows or conferences. At these events, the cardinal rule is knowing one’s audience, as discussed in detail here. But this same rule applies to all speaking situations and all audiences, of which leaders are faced with a broad span. Although this is a seemingly obvious point, it is frequently underestimated and poses a surprisingly tricky hurdle that blocks many leaders’ public speaking efforts. This post examines this issue and offers some simple ideas to help leaders navigate the complex and sometimes intimidating world of speaking to different groups.

To start, I want to refute the widely held notion that public speaking is an innate trait that some of us are born with (or, cursedly, without). While people undoubtedly start with a range of natural abilities, public speaking is an intricate skill that inevitably requires practice and discipline. The more practice, the better one becomes — obviously. But what is less obvious is that the environment in which one practices has a massive influence over how that competence evolves. To make this point, let’s take an example from the world of professional tennis:

Rafael Nadal is one of the world’s all-time great tennis players, having won 35 masters titles in his remarkable career. He has won the French Open a record twelve(!) times, including the recent 2019 crown. Conversely, he has won Wimbledon “only” twice, and not since doing so in 2010 at the age of 24. Why the discrepancy; after all, tennis is tennis, right? As it turns out, Nadal grew up practicing thousands of hours (literally) on the clay courts of his native Mallorca, Spain, which is the same surface on which the French Open is played. He is imminently comfortable on that playing surface, and far less so on the grass courts of Wimbledon’s All England Tennis Club.

Public speaking is very similar: we improve where and how we practice. I don’t mean the physical space (the playing surface is irrelevant here), but rather the types of situations we experience on a regular basis. In my experience, the most important factor in a presenter’s evolution is the kind of audience to which he / she becomes accustomed. This point was driven home recently by an executive with whom I was working. He has vast experience in sales leadership roles and is supremely competent and confident in front of prospects and customers. Having recently moved into more of a general management role, however, he suddenly has far more responsibility for presenting to internal audiences comprised of company-wide team members. He expressed that he finds the experience to be a new and different challenge, to which he is still becoming acclimated. He further shared that he currently requires far more presentation prep and notes in order to feel ready to present to this group. Given his background, this makes total sense; and it raised for me the following related observations.

A large part of leading SaaS businesses revolves around balancing the needs of different stakeholders, as referenced here and more briefly here. I often think in terms of a company’s four key sets of stakeholders: (1) its addressable market, (2) existing clients, (3) company team members, and (4) shareholders or owners. In the context of public speaking, it is helpful to think about these stakeholder groups and simply bear in mind the uniqueness of each as an audience. If nothing else, doing so can raise a presenter’s awareness around which audience represents a personal comfort versus one that may fall further outside his / her comfort zone. This alone can lead to more thoughtful and effective prep.

For some presenters, it can be helpful to overlay the concept of “altitude” on this stakeholder framework. Specifically, we often use the term “altitude” to describe the appropriate level of detail for a discussion or presentation. As a general guideline, each stakeholder group tends to have a different preferred altitude, or level of detail, at which they want to be engaged. This might look something like this:

  1. Shareholders (highest altitude, least appetite for day-to-day details)
  2. Prospects (somewhere in the middle / top)
  3. Clients (somewhere in the middle / bottom)
  4. Team members (lowest altitude, most day-to-day details)

Taking this concept further, presenters can further identify the general / typical information needs of each different stakeholder group. This might look roughly as follows:

  1. Shareholders: Company financial performance in the recent past, the present, and the foreseeable future…and any items that could materially impact that performance.
  2. Prospects: Product and services information to inform a purchase decision that should prove over time to have been a wise, positive-ROI investment.
  3. Clients: Evidence to inform an ongoing renewal of commercial decision (i.e. will the “pain of change” (hopefully) far out-weight the “pain of same” in the vendor-client relationship).
  4. Team members: Do I have the necessary resources to successfully do my job today; does this continue to be the right company for me to achieve my career and professional goals?

Finally, it’s also worth noting that the each of these stakeholder groups is comprised of a rich and diverse set of sub-groups. For example, within a group of team members, the needs and perspectives of software developers will be different from those of salespeople or marketers. Likewise, in the shareholder category, existing owners who are current board members will have a very different viewpoint than prospective new investors. Further segmenting each stakeholder group can only help a public speaker to mindfully target content and delivery style to match the audience needs.

To finish at the beginning, public speaking is a critical tool in a business leaders’ toolbox. Knowing one’s audience is paramount across a wide spectrum of prospective speaking situations. And this framework can hopefully be helpful in making it easier for thoughtful leaders to prepare effectively and present expertly in any situation.


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