5 Steps to Customize Your Communication for Your Audience

Effective Presentations Are All about Your Audience

suedhang/Image Source/Getty Images

Know your audience. 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 HR professional.

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


The problem? This process takes time, and it’s always easier to do a brain dump of all of the things that you know or want to tell someone about a topic. Thinking critically about what that person wants or needs to hear is tougher.

A trap I've seen a lot of HR professionals get caught up in is giving an: Everything They Should Know or Do 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
  • mapping 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 is that different audiences care about and respond to different things - so if you want to be engaging, you need to tailor your message every time you speak.

This 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.

Know what they care about.

As you plan your presentation, ask what are the so what’s for them?  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, or make your best guess.

Then start your presentation by saying it back to them, “I know several of you have been wondering X 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 the problems of theirs you’ll address in your talk, you demonstrate that you care about them.  That makes people want to listen.

Map out your main points.

Most presentations feel like an information dump, not a clear story with a set of main points.  We usually know much more than other people want or need to know about our topics.  

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.  

The people who stand out as presenters, the ones who get heard and have influence, start with the problem of the audience’s that they are solving, and then 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 it 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 that will make more sense for them? How do your points relate to each other? Make it clear. If they don’t, tell people, “Here’s a totally different, yet important, topic”.  

Tell stories, use examples.

Besides trying to present too many things at once, all too often presentations sound abstract and unrelated to the daily life 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 the ideas grounded in stories and examples.

Human brains are wired to relate to stories, and to remember them. So, cover fewer points - better - with examples.  

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 life.

Show, don’t just tell.  A picture is worth...

Presenters who use too much text often use excuses like, “But I have to communicate very specific information!” or, “My audiences 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 have the effect of taking two Ambien, cut the text. Send it in a follow-up email, or share it in a 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.

Tailor, and improvise.

Once you've created a good presentation that visually supports your main message, you have the freedom to tailor it to each audience. You can make your point and then ask out loud, “So why should you care about this?” and tailor your answer to the audience in front of you.  

In 20 years of training and making presentations for leaders at dozens of organizations like Apple, Oracle, SAP, and T-Mobile, I've seen over and over the power of a simple set of messages. 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?

More about Communication in Training