The following is excerpted from Chapter One of my new book: Stellar Presentations: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Giving Great Talks.
The Three Questions
I was raised as the youngest son in a Jewish family. That meant that each Passover I recited the ritual Four Questions that launched the story-telling part of our Passover dinner. These days, I am rarely the youngest one at the table. But as a speaker and a coach, I begin the story that my clients or I will tell by reciting three questions:
- Who are the people in the audience?
- What do I have that they want?
- What do I want to accomplish by addressing them?
I ask the first two of these questions to conference producers. When they invite me. The third is mine to answer before I accept an invite. Then, as happened in India, I replay the questions and the answers I received just before I start my talk.
Whatever your goal, you will come closer to achieving it if you understand who is listening to you and what you have that will interest them in some way related to their business.
I just told you how great Steve Jobs, was as a presenter, but, like most speakers, he had his off days. In one such case, it was clearly because he didn’t understand what his audience wanted from him.
In 1997, shortly after taking the reigns of Apple for the second time, Jobs was presiding over a press conference, whose objective I do not recall. What was memorable, however, is that he was acting defensively and was evasive in answering direct questions. This made the reporters in the room increasingly aggressive.
Finally, he snapped. “I know you guys are out to get me, just like you were the last time.” The room went quiet for a long moment.
Finally, Greg Zachary of the Wall Street Journal broke the awkward silence. “Steve, you have us all wrong,” he said. “We don’t care whether you win or lose. We just want a good story—and we get it either way.”
People who attend a presentation are not there to serve the speaker’s goals. They are there for their own business goals. Conversely, speakers are there to fulfill audience expectations.
Reporters want a good story. The recent college grads in your audience are looking for a good place to work. Consultants are looking for some new business to pitch, and so on down the line.
A presentation usually starts with the audience generally on the speaker’s side. Other than hard-boiled reporters, most people will benefit far more if you succeed in telling them something that is useful or valuable to them.
When I’m speaking, I treat the audience as my customer. I try to give them what I have that they want. This is not altruism so much as a business strategy. Only by pleasing my audience can I subsequently achieve any of my own business goals.
If you represent a startup, the audience will be willing to cut you a little slack. They don’t expect you to be as smooth as George Clooney accepting an award. They will forgive you a stutter or a stammer or even some minor typo in your slide deck. They will even forgive an occasional bug that pops up during your demo of a new product.
But this doesn’t mean you are home free. The audience is yours to lose and there are many ways that can happen. You can be insufferably boring or ill-prepared; you can overstate your case, pretend to be someone you are not, or otherwise damage yourself by stretching credibility.
You can lose an audience by bad luck. Believe it or not, it is far better to follow a great speaker than one who puts attendees into nap mode. You might find yourself competing with a noisy lunch setup crew just outside your room or at the very worst; you can get caught in a lie.
I’ll address these issues in upcoming chapters.