I’ve always thought — and told other people — that it’s almost impossible to know too much about your audience.
Who they are. Why they’re gathering. What they have in common. Their education level and their knowledge of your topic. Their sex, age, economic status. Their expectations. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But just this morning I read something that made me rethink all of that. The piece that got me thinking is a chapter called “The Audience” in William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well. In answer to the question, “Who am I writing for?” he says,
You are writing primarily to entertain yourself, and if you go about it with confidence you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.
The same, I think, is true for speakers. To paraphrase Zinsser, “You are speaking primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with confidence and competence you will also please your audience.”
So many speeches and presentations are boring because the speakers are bored. They’re talking about something that doesn’t interest them. Or they’re talking about it in a way that is so unnatural (to them), so stilted and by the numbers and like the speeches they’ve heard everyone else give, that they’ve lost all interest in whatever it is they’re talking about.
Bored people give boring presentations.
Yes, yes, yes, you have to gear what you’re saying to the specific audience you’re addressing. But — and this is a big but — you are your first audience. If you’re not excited about what you’re saying, don’t say it. How can you possible expect your audience to get excited about what bores you?
Cultivate a sense of wonder. Be infinitely curious. Reclaim your delight and childlike enthusiasm. Ask endless questions, even if they sound — or especially if you’ve been told — your questions are nonsensical, impractical, or irrelevant. Don’t try to be original or creative. Just stop trying to be and to think and to act and to speak like everyone else.
Pleasing yourself when you speak isn’t everything. But if it’s not a part of what you’re about, something essential is missing.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree?
Photo courtesy of Pingu1963 at Flikr.