Leadership Feb 1, 2024
Want to Connect with Your Audience? Stop Trying to Impress Them
Good ideas and technical expertise alone won’t cut it. An expert offers four tips on giving a great presentation.
For a leader, business acumen and savvy will only get you so far. Getting people on board with your vision and working towards a common goal depends on how well you communicate.
“To be successful, it’s simply not enough to have brilliant ideas. You must also be able to communicate your ideas clearly and concisely in order to persuade investors, stakeholders, and clients,” says Michael Foley, a clinical assistant professor of leadership and communication at the Kellogg School and founder of Clarity Central, a consulting firm that trains business professionals in communication skills.
Whether you’re giving a high-stakes pitch to a prospective client, presenting results to your board, or responding to questions at a town-hall meeting, having great ideas and technical expertise isn’t enough if you can’t meet people where they are and spark their curiosity.
“You have to do everything you can to make it easy for the audience to grasp your brilliant message,” Foley says.
Below, he identifies four ways to connect with your audience.
Tailor your message to each audience
Many leaders use the same content again and again, no matter whom they’re talking to. As important as it is to be consistent across your messaging, this doesn’t mean recycling the same points wherever you go.
For example, an HR leader in a software company shouldn’t use the same recruitment presentation for entry-level engineers as mid-career executives. New recruits generally care about culture and advancement opportunities before compensation, while executives typically want to know more about opportunities and compensation than culture. Tailoring each conversation to emphasize the audience’s priorities is critical to keeping them engaged.
But it requires some preparation. Ask yourself: Who is my audience? Then, try to determine what makes them tick. If time and resources allow for it, you can conduct interviews or do some digging to discern their top-of-mind needs and concerns. If you are pressed for time or don’t have access to your audience in advance, you can still brainstorm what you think their priorities and goals may be.
“It’s really hard for us to get out of our own way of thinking and tune into others,” Foley says. The key is to ask, “What does my audience really want to know about my topic, and why does it matter to them?”
Design your talk with “structured improvisation” in mind
Most speakers are either scripters or wingers, says Foley. Scripters stick closely to their talking points; wingers just, well, tend to wing it. Which method is more effective? According to Foley, neither. The sweet spot is in the middle.
Leaders should aim for what Foley calls “structured improvisation,” where you prepare your key talking points while giving yourself the freedom to express yourself in a natural and conversational manner.
“The structure shows the audience that you’ve done your due diligence and that you’re going to be crisp, clear, and on point,” Foley says. “It also shows you know where they’re coming from, you’ve anticipated some of their questions already, and you’ve woven them into your content.”
When you master this technique, you can jot down notes on a napkin and talk effortlessly for twenty minutes or more, he says.
“When your structure is tailored for a specific audience, the first thing out of your mouth is exactly what’s on their minds.”
Foley suggests preparing a simple three-by-three matrix: three main points supported by no more than three subpoints, which include stories, examples, or data. For example, if you’re preparing a client presentation, you might begin by brainstorming and ranking their top-three priorities, listing the questions you think they’ll ask about, and then fleshing out the content accordingly.
“When your structure is tailored for a specific audience, the first thing out of your mouth is exactly what’s on their minds. As a result, you will have their complete attention.” Foley says.
Strike a balance between data and stories
As you back up your talking points, Foley recommends using a mix of objective evidence—data, statistics, charts—and subjective evidence, including stories and examples. Objective evidence helps you establish context and build a case, especially with technical audiences. Subjective evidence is best used to illustrate a point, such as relating a testimonial to demonstrate client impact.
Foley further distinguishes between examples, or “snapshots in time,” which are straightforward and can be shared in less than a minute, and stories, which are longer and more in-depth and memorable. While examples can be sprinkled throughout and used anytime, he says, stories are best placed at the opening or end of a talk where they can make the biggest impact.
Knowing your audience can help you determine how much of each type of evidence you cite. For example, stories work well in business presentations or investment pitches, but might not resonate with analytical audiences such as engineers, PhD researchers, and accountants.
The same goes for finding the right data point, story, or example. If you’re a consultant pitching a new client, telling a story about your engagement process can be powerful, Foley says. He recommends saying something like, “I was working with another client who had the same questions that you’re asking. Let me tell you what we did and how it went.”
“You have to read your audience and adjust accordingly,” Foley says.
Set a goal to educate, not impress
Finally, Foley stresses that many leaders trip themselves up because they’re focused on the wrong goal. They aim to impress their audience—dazzle them with charm or demonstrate how intelligent and competent they are.
Instead, Foley says leaders should always have one goal: to educate.
“As a presenter, if my intention is to impress, perform, or entertain, I’m going to be nervous because my focus is on me,” Foley says. “If, however, my intention is to educate my audience on a vision, idea, or insight that will bring real value to their lives and/or their business, my focus is on them. As a result, I relax and connect effortlessly with my audience.”
To educate, Foley stresses that you need to practice—at least four or five times, out loud—until your delivery feels comfortable, not rote. Each time, your structure and main points should be consistent, but your words may vary. “You’re natural but crisp and on target,” he describes. Once you’ve found a comfortable rhythm, he recommends practicing in front of a partner, colleague, or friend who can ask questions.
“It’s an act of generosity that requires a bit more work on your part, but it makes all the difference with audiences.”
Susan Margolin is a writer based in Boston.