Presentation skills: Measure twice, cut once – do your audience research

We should be ‘Sherlockian’ in our powers of audience observation….

By Carolyn Crawford

I was recently introduced to the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series.  It’s riveting.  Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has such vastly superior observational skills that they verge on the equivalent of a superpower.   He wouldn’t be out of place among the X-Men.  Needless to say, these heightened observational powers give him a substantial edge on his mere mortal detective colleagues and he’s brought in for only the most confounding cases.

We may not be blessed with such a natural talent, but going above and beyond the call of duty in terms of ‘understanding our audience’, whether that be one person or many, can go a long way towards giving ourselves, our idea or recommendation, a competitive advantage.

Let’s explore therefore, what we can find out in advance, how our preparation time is best spent, and what we can do on the day, to improve our understanding of, and hence ability to influence, our audience.


So you’re in your office or at your workspace alone.  There’s a million urgent things to be done all clamouring for your attention, including of course personal messages and Facebook updates.  Audience Research seems like dry work, low priority work and it’s difficult to know where to start.  In short, there’s far sexier stuff to be doing.

First thing’s first.  Diarise a half-hour meeting with yourself to get started.  Use that time to mind-map what you know, what you need to know and how you’re going to find out.  Then schedule some more meetings to follow through!

A useful process for brainstorming a solid list of questions is Starbursting ( . This requires that you come up with at least a few questions that start with each of the following words: Who, What, Why, Where, When & How.  It pushes you to consider questions beyond the superficial and to drill down a layer or two.  It also ensures you ask questions that don’t come naturally to your personality style or thinking preference.  My makeup is such that I tend to ask a lot of big picture and strategic questions.  I’m less adept at asking process and implementation questions.  Starbursting forces me to ask the ‘how’ questions that I naturally balk at!


Obvious sources of information will be the internet, Google, LinkedIn and the like.  A less public source of information will be colleagues who have had past dealings with the person or people you’re hoping to influence.  See if you can organise a coffee or phone hook-up with them.

Finally, the most meaningful source of information is the person or people themselves.  Certainly some information could and should be gleaned in advance.  Don’t be afraid to email or call and ask some of the more critical questions prior to the meeting.  Pre-empt the conversation with “I’m looking forward to meeting you next week to discuss XYZ, and I’m keen to make sure we keep it extremely focused and time efficient.  Can I ask you a couple of things in advance to make sure we’re on track?”  It’s a rare person who doesn’t want to minimise time loss on the day and it’s a great way of building rapport before you meet.


Once you finally meet of course, it’s your time to play detective and outshine Sherlock.  Now you get to ask that comprehensive list of questions you’ve prepared, not in any scripted fashion, but naturally, genuinely and with interest.  Listen fully to the answers, play back your understanding and probe more deeply.  Watch their body language and listen for their drivers – what do they care about?  What are their top priorities? What pressures are they under? And what’s their perspective or point of view?  What’s their style? Are they short, sharp and punchy, or open and discussive? Are they motivated by the satisfaction of their staff and customers or purely by targets and business outcomes?  Are they sketchy and big picture or thorough and detailed?   Does their suit or office space tell you anything about them?  If they seem open to small-talk up front, is there a photo or book on their shelf you can use to prompt a question and break the ice?

You can’t use every single piece of information, but you can certainly use their business goals and examples, their language and weighting, their style and pace, as a guide to focus your response on meaningful benefits to them, and deliver in a way that’s palatable for them.

In short, if you practice your observational skills and are genuine, warm and sincere – truly interested in their world view and what they have to say, and able to respond in a way that’s comfortable for their style and relevant to their needs, you’ll build a personal and professional connection that’s hard to beat.

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