Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Know Your Audience

I attended a networking lunch meeting today because the speaker's topic appealed to me. I came away from it with a reminder for those of us who speak in public to promote our products or services: Know your audience.

The speaker works for one of those brand name financial services firms. He is a long-time member of this group of small business owners who meet monthly to network and learn from a guest speaker. The fact that he's a long-time member is important -- it means that he knows this group -- or should know this group -- really, really well. He should know that they own carpet cleaning and janitorial companies, are Realtors, sell jewelry through home parties, or create Web sites for other small businesses. This information should tell him not to wear a suit when addressing an audience that only wears suits to funerals! All he needed to do was take off the jacket and tie and open his collar. Yeah, yeah, they all wear suits in his office. But he wasn't presenting to the people in his office. He was presenting to a casually dressed group of women and men.

I can forgive him for not making the effort to use his apparel to connect with the audience. But there's no excuse for using the stereotype of the shrewish wife as an anecdote -- twice -- when speaking to an audience dominated by women business owners. I was rather dumbfounded by his chauvinism, as was the woman sitting next to me. How many others in the room feel that his example showed, at best, that he didn't know his audience, or, at worst, that he is sexist? It doesn't matter if he is or isn't -- it's the perception that counts here.

It's likely that the underlying reason for his presentation was to help people get to know him and what he's capable of professionally. Those who like an ultra-conservative financial advisor with a wife who probably doesn't work outside the home might want to retain his services.

My takeaway, though, was that while I always want to look professional and successful when speaking to a group, I want to be dressed in a way that shows that I am familiar with their world. Sure, if they're all wearing nurses uniforms, I'm not going to wear a nurse's uniform. But you can bet I won't be wearing a designer suit and heels. And I'll make sure my anecdotes cause them to nod in agreement, not cross their arms over their chests and murmur "tsk tsk."

Do the research needed to know your audience. Then prepare accordingly. It will help you be certain that the buzz you've generated through your presentation is the kind of buzz you want.

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