Updated: Jun 13
A presentation is always created for a specific audience. That audience determines both what you include in the presentation and how that content is structured. That’s why gathering information about your audience is an important early step in preparing your presentation.
There are four key questions to ask yourself about the audience who will attend your presentation:
1. How much do they already know about my topic? Are they experts or novices or somewhere in between? Knowing this will help you determine where you need to start. If they are novices, you may need to start at the beginning and give a lot of background information. The experts won't require much background because they already know the topic well. If you are unsure about the audience's level of knowledge about your subject, shoot for a middle ground, not starting at the very beginning but giving some background information. That way, everyone should be able to stay with you.
2. How much do they need to know? The answer is often “Enough to be able to make a decision.” Or “Enough to understand the next steps.” But that may not be the same kind or amount of information for all audiences. People from some cultures need a lot of detailed information to understand or decide (for example, Germans). People from other cultures prefer less information and detail (for example, Americans).
In either case, the audience rarely does the audience need to know everything you know about the topic. Resist the temptation to make your presentation a display of your knowledge and expertise. Instead, give the audience precisely what they need to know to decide or take action. Remember, less is always more.
3. A key question people often don't think to ask themselves as they prepare a presentation is, “What narrative about my topic could be playing in the heads of my audience members?” The audience may have preconceived ideas about your subject due to media coverage or popular dogma. If you can identify this narrative, you can counter it (if it is negative) or build on it (if it is positive). See my blog post "Tuning into Audience Attitude," for more about this.
4. What questions might the audience have? There may be questions you are used to getting when you present on this topic, or questions could be related to what has been in the media related to your topic. Anticipating questions and building the answers into your presentation can take the stress out of the Q&A session and put your audience at ease.
What if you can’t get much information?
It is always best to get as much information as possible about your audience before you begin to prepare your presentation, but what if, try as you might, you can’t find out much about them? In that case, the best advice is to "shoot for the middle." Plan to include some background, but don't start at the very beginning, and include a "medium" level of detail. If you are giving a presentation you have made before, think about what other audiences knew, how they responded, and the kinds of questions they asked.
Another way to handle this situation is to keep your presentation basic and allow the audience to ask questions in the Q&A that fill in the blanks. This could create a conversational dynamic to your presentation, but it could also make some audience members think you don't know your stuff. Think about your overall goal for the presentation to choose the best strategy.