The most important rule in public speaking is to know your audience. You will not be your most effective unless you do.
Several years ago, we were speakers at a business seminar in New Jersey. We were scheduled to fly out of Flint, Michigan, on Friday, with the seminar Saturday evening. Unfortunately, a major blizzard hit. Our flight left Flint without issue, but when we landed in Detroit for our connection to New Jersey, we were informed our flight was canceled. The next available flight wouldn't be until late Saturday morning.
So much for getting into town early.
We stayed overnight in Detroit and drove through the blizzard the next morning back to the airport. After over an hour of de-icing, our flight was the only one that took off before they canceled all other flights. We arrived in New Jersey only a couple hours before we were scheduled to speak.
Our luggage did not arrive with us. In fact, we did not see our luggage until two weeks later when it was delivered to our home in Michigan. Incidentally, the second most important rule in public speaking is to always put the clothes you plan to wear during your talk into your carry-on.
We knew we had some serious juggling to do. We like to arrive early. We like to meet with people we'll be speaking to. We like to learn about the town, the heritage, and the company we're working with. We had done a lot of leg work from home prior to this day, but there is nothing like chatting with the actual people involved. We like to know what makes them tick and what is on their hearts. So when our hosts picked us up from the airport, we used the 25 minute commute to fill in the gaps.
The couple who picked us up became fast friends. We asked them countless questions. They filled us in on everything, including the local culture. We were speaking very close to New York City and were informed that there were many different cultures represented at this particular meeting. For example, there were many religious leaders present whose traditions and cultures differ from mine. This was important to know because I am a very "huggy" or "touchy-feely" person by nature, which would not have gone over well at all with this crowd who did not believe in touching anyone of the opposite gender who is not your spouse. Our hosts saved me from a major faux pas, and having this knowledge helped me to respect their different beliefs.
They also clued us in on the particular challenges their team members were facing. They shared their group's strengths and weaknesses. They told us about a few of the group's leaders, who we made sure to name during our talks. Knowing this background information made our talks so much more effective because we were able to give this group exactly what it needed at that time. We tailored our own skills and experiences specifically for them.
Knowing your audience is crucial. Chatting with folks ahead of time and asking lots of questions is absolutely essential to your success as a speaker. If you speak to their needs, your talk will help them move forward. Bringing about positive change is the ultimate goal. It won't happen if you don't know what the group needs to change.
There is another benefit to knowing your audience: you will make life-long tremendous friendships along the way. Some of the couples who have hosted us at speaking events have become some of our closest friends. That New Jersey couple who hosted us regularly keeps in touch. They will be cherished friends for life.
Take the time to know your audience. The old saying is true: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Care enough to know them. Know them well enough to speak directly to them and their needs. It matters.
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