Having a great message is one of the cornerstones of presenting and speaking well. If you intend to be someone who communicates value and wants long term success, you owe your audience a well crafted message.
I know it's obvious. Everyone reading this probably thinks that it's obvious. Everyone who gives a presentation likely thinks it's obvious. Even the least interested high school student who has to present probably thinks to themselves:
"Yeah...I guess I need, like...something interesting to....like...say to the audience."
Why then, do smart, educated, ambitious people so frequently make a message building mistake that brings down their speaking quality?
This morning, I had the chance to sit in on a presentations session at the end of a leadership development training program. The participants were all team leaders, junior managers or those with aspirations to move their careers in this way. Ten presenters stood up to speak and all ten of them, despite their knowledge, skills and the training they'd received forgot one of the most fundamental questions that presenters must answer before speaking.
Each time you stand up and say "Today I'm going to talk about ABC and share information XYZ with you." your audience will have the question below in the forefront of their mind.
Why should your audience care what you have to say?
Why do you deserve their time and attention?
What's in it for them?
NEWSFLASH! People are generally self-focused...
Most of the time I care about myself, my family and my environment more than I care about you, your family and your environment. Please don't take as malicious in the slightest way. I would never wish anything ill for you. It's simply that my interests are closer to my heart, just as your interests are focused on yourself, your family and your environment. It's natural and human.
Your audience is composed of five, ten, thirty, a hundred humans who are all focused on their own interests first and foremost. As a great speaker and presenter your challenge is to connect with them. Your message and content should have a clear benefit to those who are hearing it. Your delivery must be phrased and structured in such a way that people are very much aware of why they will benefit from listening to you
Any presenter who fails to answer this question in their structure, content and delivery is going to face an uphill struggle. There is no substitute for answering and no way to ignore it if you wish to connect with people. Your message and content should have a clear benefit to those who are hearing it. Your delivery must be phrased and structured in such a way that people are very much aware of why they will benefit from listening to you
To some extent, the content part is easier since people rarely present unless the topic is relevant to the audience. Where the failure often occurs is in communicating that relevance to the audience. If they don't realise why your message helps them, the connection will be weaker, less trust will be created and your overall impact will be reduced.
Beyond this, there is the issue of respect. As a speaker, you are a leader for your audience. Great leaders start everything with a clear understanding of WHY and have an ingrained respect for their people. They do not waste those people's precious time, money and energy on things that do not help them. My request to you, on behalf of those who listen to you, is to be a valuable use of someone's time. When you speak to your audience, do everything in your power to make it very clear why they are going to benefit from your presentation.
What's in it for you if you answer the question?
Your audiences will connect with you more, smile more, nod in agreement more, interact with you more, thank you more, give you more good reviews, recommend you more, hire you more and respect you more.
How do I answer the question?
Openly speaking, answering the question should underlie the entirety of your creative preparation process. That means you should take a long, hard look at the question as soon as you've put together the first key points of your message. For each point, consider why the audience should care about it. Answer the individual points as well as the whole topic. For example, and using a tougher topic, consider the following:
Adding a new task to the team's responsibilities. Present on this topic. Nobody wants it.
Why should the team care?
By understanding the changes and reasons behind them, people will be more prepared for the extra tasks. They should care because if they lack understanding, the transition will be harder and more stressful. They will also care how you (as a leader) feel about the changes and how it will affect your work with them, i.e. will you be more supportive, discuss with higher management about removing/adjusting the task, hire someone new etc.
Note that your answers might not always show reasons why the topic will be good for the audience. "What in it for me?" can be a simple as giving them information about challenges so they are more able to work around the disruptions. Being informed is a benefit for most people in most situations.
How do I make the points clear to the audience?
Now we have answers for "What's in it for me?" that we can communicate to our audience and have built our content to support those answers. Let's consider now how we tell the audience what we've got. There are a number of ways to do this and you will need to select the one(s) that you feel are most appropriate for the people you're speaking to and the topic of the presentation.
1 - Be explicit
Perhaps the simplest of choices we have is to tell our audience specific answers to the question. You can even call the question into focus directly if you feel the audience would respond positively to it.
"You might be wondering what's in it for you regarding this topic. I'll tell you what…"
"This presentation will tell you why we're switching to Google Apps, when we're switching and what the impacts might be, making your working lives easier. That's what you'll get in the next twenty minutes."
2 - 'You' language
You can learn a simple phrasing change that makes a big difference in the way people perceive what you say. We saw in the opening example that speakers will often use phrases like:
- I'm going to talk about…
- I want to share this info with you…
- I think this is important because…
In each case, notice the core subject of the sentence is the pronoun I. That's something we should be looking to eliminate and rephrase wherever possible. Try rewriting sentences to have a more 'you' sounding focus. For the examples above, something like the following might help:
- You are going to learn…
- This info will be valuable for you…
- You will find this important because…
A great exercise to see how well you're already doing this is to take the transcript of a speech or presentation opening. In the opening remarks, use a highlighter to mark how many times there is an 'I' sentence there and then see how many times you're able to reword that sentence to a 'you' focused message.
3 - Ask a rhetorical and/or leading question
Getting people to think in a way that focuses their mind on the benefits of your talk can be a great tool for making your audiences care and become engaged. Questions are a wonderful and frequently used way to open a presentation.
- Who would feel more comfortable knowing exactly what's changing in our IT, why, and how to manage it better?"
- "What difference would it make to staff if they knew exactly what is going to change, why and the impacts it could have? How much better could smart and efficient people manage the transition if they were put fully in the picture?"
4 - Tell them a story, with a benefit for them in the story.
Stories make people listen. Storytellers can hold an audience, leading them through a journey that entertains, engages and educates. If you choose to include stories in your presentations, as you should whenever it is possible appropriate, then weaving in components or examples that connect to the benefits for your audience will pay strong dividends. Storytelling is an art form in itself and something that's certainly worth studying. When considering benefits, a simple parallel story can be a great way to get people's attention. Most frequently, you will show a positive example of what you're going to talk about, or a painful example of when someone didn't do the good thing you're going to talk about.
- I met my friend Jane recently for the first time in about six months. It turns out her company implemented a lot of changes to their procedures and working systems. Best of all, they decided not to tell the staff a lot about what is going to happen. As a result, Jane spent extra hours at work away from family, got logged out of systems in the middle of tasks and struggled to do things efficiently. They had endless delays for colleagues and even the customers. She told me she was lucky to get through the last few months without a nervous breakdown, a divorce, or both.
You deserve better than Jane got. That's why you're going to learn all that you need to know in order to manage this transition.
The closer your story is to reality, the better, since your delivery will be much more natural. You should take some time to go through your history and what you've heard about different people's experiences to mine for content. Get to know what you can use and see how to adapt it to help your audience.
What's in it for them?
In short, speakers who forget to answer this question and then communicate it to their audience lose out on making connections and perform well below their potential. If you include the question through every part of your presentation preparation and delivery, then audiences will love to listen to you. You'll find the stage becomes a friendly and positive place from where you make a massive difference. If you don't, just like the ten junior managers I saw present, you'll deliver something that the audience struggles to pay attention to.
Figure out what's in it for your audience members then communicate it to them.
They deserve it.
You'll do better because of it.