First, research and gather as much information as possible:
- Who are they?
- Do you know any of them personally?
- What are their roles and responsibilities?
- What are their backgrounds and leadership styles?
- What is the business strategy they are leading?
- What initiatives are they currently driving or sponsoring?
- Who is a potential champion?
- Who is a potential resistor?
If any leaders have been featured in the media recently, look up the articles or interviews. Read their executive bios. Step into their shoes as much as possible, so you can increase your chances of connecting effectively with them.
In addition, you may already have personal insights about the individuals in your audience from previous interactions with them as colleagues, managers, or mentors. Perhaps you had opportunities to discuss your project in prior one-on-one conversations. This is valuable information that you can leverage to tap into the audience’s needs and expectations.
Think like a CEO
If you haven’t done so already, try to get into a holistic mindset – think like a CEO. Refresh your knowledge of corporate strategy by reviewing recent internal messaging, speeches, leader messages to employees, message maps, and communication materials from leader meetings or town hall events.
You also can research current business issues of most concern to this audience profile. Many credible surveys and university studies provide insight into topics of discussion in the C-suite and boardrooms.
For example, one recent survey showed that most executives currently worry about the rapid pace of technological development and disruptive innovation. You may choose to leverage this kind of business intelligence to determine your points of emphasis, and how best to move your audience to action.
In any given audience, a good assumption to make is that half will likely be more visual and the other half may respond better to spoken or written material. In the same measure, in any given sample, half may be more responsive to emotional cues, and the other half more analytical or data-driven. The challenge with any audience is that there is usually a mix of many different types of intelligences and preferences.
This idea was developed by Harvard University professor Dr. Howard Gardner as the “Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” He categorized the following types of intelligence:
- Linguistic intelligence (words)
- Logical-mathematical intelligence (numbers/reasoning)
- Spatial intelligence (visuals)
- Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (movement)
- Musical intelligence (music)
- Interpersonal intelligence (people)
- Intrapersonal intelligence (self)
- Naturalist intelligence (nature)
The one intelligence used most frequently on a daily basis is spatial intelligence. Knowing this, you can plan to incorporate visual elements into your presentation.
Keep in mind that a speaker cannot be all things to every person in the audience. The job at hand is to cast a broad net to try to engage and influence as many as possible.
Another way to think about your audience is by using personality theory. While many theories and diagnostics are out there, the Big 5 and DISC seem to have the most research behind them.
Realistically, you won’t be able to administer a personality test to your audience before the presentation. If you are a keen observer of behavior and habits, however, you might be able to tune into audience preferences before you even begin analysing and pitching your idea. Understanding these preferences will not only shape the way you eventually communicate, but they will also help shape your solution.
Big5 / OCEAN
Big 5, sometimes called OCEAN, is a proven scientific tool which is used by experts who study human personality to understand the underlying processes behind a person's behavior. The Big 5 is, among people who study personality, considered the key indicator of the fundamentals of personality. The “official” diagnostic consists of 300+ questions administered by a professional (more recent work suggests that a simple 15-item diagnostic provides usable results).
The Big 5 Factors are grouped as:
- Openness: open-minded, an interest in art, emotional, adventurous, new ideas, and curiosity. Audience members high in openness will be moved by big ideas and bold strategies.
- Conscientiousness: typically self-disciplined, results-oriented and structured, traditional, and dutiful. Audience members high in conscientiousness will appreciate that all of the details are thought through.
- Extroversion: high energy level, people person, extrovert, and stimulated by being around others. Audience members high in extroversion will be persuaded by personal interaction and conversation before and after the presentation.
- Agreeableness: compassionate, cooperative, ability to forgive and being pragmatic; let’s get the thing done. Audience members high in agreeableness will find value in solutions that have consensus around the table and might look toward others before they make their own decision.
- Neuroticism: sensible, vulnerable; in the extreme, emotionally unstable and neurotic. Audience members high in neuroticism (what a terrible name for a personality factor!) will be more reactive that most and will want to see that the risks associated with your business case are addressed.
DISC is a product of a private company designed to allow coworkers to be categorized by their behaviors to enable understanding and predictability of behaviors in those coworkers by placing them into easy-to-use categories:
- Drive/Dominance (D) – task-oriented, fast-mover, bottom-line-oriented audience members will want to focus on the ROI and logic of a plan and how it can get done. They thrive on the challenge of solving problems and like to be in charge. They can be impatient with people get in the way of their goals.
- Influence (I) – people-oriented, energetic, desire popularity and praise. Audience members who value other people and their opinions. They are often classified as “optimists” who see the possibilities and opportunities.
- Steadiness (S) – very people and family-oriented, motivated by loyalty and security, slower-moving. Audience members high in steadiness will want to know how solutions affect the entire team and their colleagues. They will be careful to make a decision that changes the status quo especially if it will upset other executives. They tend to be strong listeners and less vocal participants. That said, once a person high is steadiness is on board, he or she will be one of the most vocal advocates and teachers who can spread your idea.
- Compliance/Conscientiousness (C) – task and detail-oriented, wants all information, slower-moving. Audience members high in conscientiousness will appreciate that all of the details are thought through and the the “right” things are done the “right” way. These folks love a good spreadsheet!
Again, you can’t read people’s minds, nor should you try. By thinking about these personality types, however, you will have a much better opportunity to understand and deliver the kind of information that each desires.
A simple trick - empathy
Approaching an audience with understanding and empathy will enable them to feel more connected to you. By demonstrating that you know the business issues that matter most to them, you can create a more solution-oriented presentation that is targeted, rather than hit-or-miss.
If you do not already know the individual audience members, one way to walk in someone else’s shoes and develop empathy is to create a Persona.
Used frequently by companies to give a name and face to the anonymous consumer, a Persona is a fictional character that represents the demographics, key interests, and business perspectives of a target audience.
To build a Persona, you essentially create a person with that job title and give him or her a name that sounds real.
You won’t have to invent a persona for your audience (after all you should be able to identify specific, real people who will be your audience!) but you can use this framework to detail their preferences.
Personas typically define the following basic characteristics and add any others that may be useful:
- Demographic information (age, gender, salary, location, education, family)
- Company and length of service
- Business challenges
- What keeps them up at night?
- Top risk issues?
- Top compliance issues?
- How you can help solve their problems
Is your audience customer-obsessed?
Another aspect to consider is whether or not your audience is customer-obsessed.
Companies that are preoccupied with their customers understand the importance of protecting their reputation and public perception. They recognize that customers have more word-of-mouth power than ever before, often spreading praise and complaints about a business online through Twitter, Yelp, Facebook, and other social media channels.
By monitoring social media comments about the company, you can get a sense of the current sentiment and any key issues that may be important to a more customer-centric audience, such as customer experience, reputation, privacy, regulatory risk, CSR, and information protection.
What is the business media saying?
Another way to get an idea about what’s top of mind for your executive audience is to search online for survey round ups by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, or other business publications.
For example, a recent WSJ round up of compliance surveys revealed that executive leaders are highly concerned about anti-bribery and corruption risk; 90 percent believe that their companies are exposed to some level of corruption risk. Other risks include third-party risk (40 percent stating that this was their top compliance risk), local data protection laws, and challenges moving data across jurisdictions.
To present effective business case, research in advance who your audience is and what they care about. This will help you develop an empathetic understanding of exactly who you are speaking to, giving them all the more reason to feel engaged.