Customize Your Communication for Your Audience

Your Speaking Is More Effective When the Audience Is Engaged

Businessmen and businesswomen at brainstorming meeting
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If you hope to communicate with people in a way that shares information, and especially, changes behavior and has a serious impact, you need to know who your audience is. It’s a fundamental principle of great communication. Understanding the perspective of the people you're talking to helps you become a better presenter and Human Resources professional.

Know your audience. Know what they care about. Know what they want to hear. And by knowing them, and focusing your message, you can show them that you are a great resource. You engage your audience and have a greater impact. 

The problem? Knowing your audience takes time, and it’s always easier to do a brain dump of all of the things that you know or want to tell your audience about a topic. Thinking critically about what your audience wants or needs to hear is tougher. A lot of HR professionals get caught up in giving their audience everything they should know or do about an issue long presentation.

You know you've fallen into this trap when you find yourself putting bullet points on slides instead of thinking about:

  • what the audience really cares about,
  • what your most important points are, and
  • how to map them into a clear story that creates an engaging talk. 

The second trap many HR professionals fall into is repeating that same presentation day in and day out to different audiences. The problem this creates is that different audiences care about and respond to different things—so if you want to be engaging, you need to customize your message every time you speak. Plus, you lose your natural energy and enthusiasm when you repeat yourself over and over—another audience killer.

It is how to ensure that you customize your message, cut through the noise, and keep your audience engaged with what you’re telling them—no matter who or where they are. These five key reminders will ensure that your words achieve the impact they deserve—when you win your audience's full attention and engagement.

Know What Your Audience Cares About

Your audience won't care about what you say until you've demonstrated that you care about them. As you plan your presentation, ask what are the challenges and needs of your expected audience? What are the three to four main questions or issues on their minds about your topic? 

If you don’t know, ask a few people who will attend your presentation, ask the manager of the department, or, if no information is available, make your best guess.

Then start your presentation by reminding your audience of their identified concerns. Say, “I know that several of you have been wondering about our benefits options, or “I imagine that these three things are what you really want to get out of this workshop.”

When you talk first about your audience and their problems and needs that you’ll address in your talk, you demonstrate that you care about them. That makes people want to listen.

Map Out Your Main Points for Your Audience

Most HR presentations feel like an information dump, not a clear story with a set of main points. HR professionals usually know much more than other people want or need to know about any necessary topic. 

Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, "Made to Stick" called this “the curse of knowledge.” When was the last time you felt a presentation was too short or covered too little information? Probably rarely if ever. 

The people who stand out as presenters, the ones who are heard and have influence, start out by acknowledging the problem of the audience’s that they are helping to solve. Then, as they prepare their presentation, they separate the must know from the nice to know.

Take half of whatever preparation time you have to focus on the heart of your presentation and what your audience needs to know that will help them. The best way to break the “curse of knowledge” is to focus on what’s most important to both you and the audience.

Map your presentation out on a whiteboard or piece of paper, or use a set of sticky notes. What sequence of points is best? Is there an order to the points that will make more sense for your audience? How do your points relate to each other? Make them clear. If they don’t, tell people, “Here’s a totally different, yet important, topic.” 

Tell Stories and Use Examples Your Audience Will Find Relatable

Besides trying to present too many things at once, all too often HR presentations sound abstract and unrelated to the daily life and work of the audience. What happens then is that people tune out, sit through the talk, assume it’s not about them, and take no action. This makes the presentation a waste of their time and yours. 

To relate to them, to help them take action, people need ideas that are grounded in stories and examples. Human brains are wired to relate to stories and to remember them. So, cover fewer points—better—with many examples. And, whenever possible, make the examples from their department and their day-to-day experience at work.

Tell stories about how to use the idea you’re sharing. Whether it’s how to solve a compensation problem, how to give feedback, how to sign up for your vision plan, or how the new organization is different from the old one, tell stories. Make the bridge clear between your topic and their lives and interests.

Show—Don’t Just Tell—Your Audience

A picture is worth a thousand words in many instances. Videos are becoming the norm for effective communication. In this day of accessible video tools, presenters who use too much text often use excuses. They say, “But I have to communicate very specific information.” or, “My audience will be better able to digest this complicated idea if I write it down.” No, you don’t, and no, they won’t. 

Unless your goal is to bore, alienate, and underwhelm your audience, and have no influence in a worst-case scenario, cut the text. Send it in a follow-up email, or share it in a Google doc. The visuals you use need to support the story, not become your script. Once you have your clear set of main points and a good flow supported by stories and examples, only then should you launch a presentation tool.

Otherwise, you end up with your slides serving double duty as your speaker notes. In that case, you should have just emailed the presentation instead of wasting your audience’s time.

Customize and Improvise by Knowing Your Audience

Once you've created a good presentation that visually supports your main message, you have the freedom to tailor it to each audience you serve. You can make your point and then ask out loud, “So why should you care about this?” and tailor your answer to the audience that is in front of you. What your marketing team members care about may be very different from your development staffs' needs.

The Bottom Line

In years of providing training and making presentations for leaders at dozens of organizations such as Apple, Oracle, SAP, and T-Mobile, the power of a simple set of messages has shone forth. When the messages were supported by simple images and delivered by a focused presenter who could make clear points and connect them to the daily life of their audience, communication occurred. And, isn't that the point of making a presentation?


Tobey Fitch is a Managing Partner at Fitch Associates. He has previously contributed to publications including "Entrepreneur."