By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker 

Imagine this: an expert in your field is coming to speak at your local library. You get excited, you block off a couple of hours on your schedule weeks in advance, and plan a special lunch just for the day. You arrive early, picking a seat near the front of the room, and settle in for what you think will be a fascinating roller-coaster ride of brilliance. The genius enters the room to applause and opens his mouth.

You wake up four hours later, having drifted off about fifteen minutes in. You have been knocked out by that powerful sedative: boredom. How can this be? You love the topic, how could your hero have failed to engage you?

Answer: he doesn’t present well.

This same syndrome can affect anyone. We often think (and even tell others) that if we love our topic enough, that love will carry our message to our audience. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Just like love of your field isn’t the best indicator of entrepreneurial success, love of your topic isn’t the best indicator of presentational success. Distinctive competence is what you can rely on in starting a business, the skills you have honed over years and in concert with your natural talents. In just the same way, presentation and communication skills are what you can take to the bank when it comes to public speaking.

The number one mistake most people make when giving any kind of presentation is that they center it around themselves: what they think is interesting, what they think someone else would get the most out of in a talk about their subject, what makes them most comfortable in a presentational setup. I bet our imaginary expert was as comfortable as he could be, given that he was speaking in public. What he didn’t consider was his audience.

Audience should be the first consideration in any presentation. Let me be clear: when I say “presentation,” I mean any communication where you’re trying to persuade someone who has no reason to accept what you say at face value. This category of course includes a great number of meetings and communication events we have to deal with as entrepreneurs: investor meetings, community outreach, cocktail parties, the works.

So how can you put the second person – the listener – first? There are a lot of factors that go into approaching your audience well. They break down into two major categories: content and delivery. Today I’m talking about content. In a following blog, I’ll take on delivery.

The Devil is in the Details

A big dictator of content is the level of detail. How much detail is right for your particular audience? Sometimes this is purely a question of time: do you have thirty minutes, or thirty seconds? When you have more time, the question applies more to the character of your audience.

Some people love detail. They want to know every tiny nuance of what you’re talking about. Others are all about the big picture. Speak to the level of detail the audience wants, not the one you find most natural, interesting or comfortable.

The cost of not accounting for your audience’s preferences is not always just boredom. It can be a complete failure to connect, or worse. Slamming someone who prefers the big picture with tidal waves of detailed data is a quick way to frustrate her. Going for broad sweeps with someone who needs the nitty-gritty is a quick way to make him suspicious that you haven’t thought through what you’re saying. Either outcome is bad if you’re trying to get someone impassioned about your talk.

Hearts and Minds

Another vital component when speaking to someone is to figure out in what way your content appeals to him. Is it rationally compelling, supported by numbers and figures, or does it communicate at the gut level? On the flip side, if your listener objects to your points, is that because he doesn’t have all the facts, or because he doesn’t like those facts?

Trying to throw numbers at an audience’s gut reaction is like trying to use a screwdriver on a nail. It’s the wrong tool for the job. There’s no way for your topic to get traction. Similarly, trying to make someone feel different when the numbers just don’t add up is not going to get the job done. You need the right tool for the right job. Meet your audience where they are, not where you wish they were.

When you’re getting ready to talk to someone, think about them first. How would they like their information? In broad strokes like an Impressionist painting, or in the minute details of an Old Master? How will they receive what you’re saying? Will they need cold, hard facts, or a story that puts the facts in a human perspective?

Putting that second person (the “you”) first is the first step to more persuasive communication. Next I’ll talk about some delivery skills that can help you make your body language an ally, not a giveaway of your nerves.

Got some advice for giving the dreaded “Cocktail Speech? Email me at:   I’d love to hear from you!

Thinking of starting a new venture? I invite you to download “The Pull to Become an Entrepreneur!” here.

Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book “The Purpose Is Profit: Secrets of a Successful Entrepreneur from Startup to Exit” with Wyn Lydecker and Paul McLaughlin.

Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.