3 Ways to Determine What Your Audience Really Wants

By Mike Parkinson

Knowing what your audience truly desires is a critical success factor for any presentation meant to motivate or persuade. In order to influence your audience, connect your content to their wants and needs. Poorly informed assumptions about your audience’s hopes and fears results in an ineffective presentation.

This is the process I use to define audience desires:

1.    Ask the right questions
2.    Research
3.    Understand human behavior

1. Ask the right questions

Your audience will not change unless the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. You need to show how change is better than the alternative. To do this, you need to know your audience’s goals and challenges.

Assuming you have a dialogue with your audience (or someone representative of your audience), ask open-ended questions. Let them share as much as possible.


The following are effective open-ended questions to discover more about your audience’s goals and challenges:

1.    What is going on?
2.    Can you be more specific? Give me an example.
3.    How long has this been a problem?
4.    What has not solving the problem cost you?
5.    If you could wave a magic wand, what would the solution look like?
6.    Why haven’t you done this (solved the problem)?
7.    How do you feel about that?

Dr. Robert Frey, author of Successful Proposal Strategies for Small Businesses, asks prospects and current customers a specific question, “How would you paint a picture of success now and going forward?” He listens closely to his audience’s response. His goal (and your goal) is to learn about the audience’s current state, what caused the current challenges, and what is the desired outcome—short and long term.

Recently I was teaching a workshop. In an effort to explain the difference between a feature and a benefit, I asked attendees to tell me why they own a drill. Most said, “To make a hole.” Surprisingly, one attendee replied, “To keep my father-in-law from coming over.”

When she needed a drill in the past, her father-in-law would arrive, drill in hand, and overstay his welcome. I would have never guessed her specific benefit had I not asked.

Because people can be guarded with information related to their hopes and fears, I ask them to tell a story about their challenges. Through stories people relive their challenge. Most importantly, they will relive how it felt to encounter and try to overcome it. Emotional responses reveal more about true desires and personal fears so you can uncover how to connect your solution with their objectives by listening to their story.

Images are another way to get to the heart of a challenge. Sketch a solution and you will quickly discover disconnects between your suggestion and what the audience really desires. You do not have to be a great artist like Michelangelo to do this. Draw a rough sketch and walk your audience through your idea. Then ask them, “What am I missing?”

Images are another way to get to the heart of a challenge. Sketch a solution and you will quickly discover disconnects between your suggestion and what the audience really desires. You do not have to be a great artist like Michelangelo to do this. Draw a rough sketch and walk your audience through your idea. Then ask them, “What am I missing?”


2. Research

Search online for articles and information your target audience has posted. Explore relevant websites, blogs and LinkedIn groups. Find people who have a relationship with your audience and ask questions (e.g., friends, colleagues, vendors). Seek different perspectives. The more you understand their world, the more likely you are to determine their real goals and challenges.

My research helps me choose words and images for my presentations that reflect the audience. In turn, they will see themselves in my presentation and connect the content to what they really want.

3. Understand human behavior

Behavioral psychology teaches us that decisions are not as logical as we want them to be. In fact, all decisions our audiences make must involve their emotions. Our audiences’ choices are driven by a combination of conscious and subconscious (emotional) thoughts.

Herbert A. Simon, Nobel Prize winning scholar at the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, studied corporate decision-making and found that people often ignored formal decision-making models because of time constraints, incomplete information, the inability to calculate consequences and other variables. Intuitive judgment was the process for most decisions.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio reviewed research on patients with damaged ventromedial frontal cortices of the brain, which impaired their ability to feel but left their ability to think analytically intact. Damasio discovered that the patients were unable to make rational decisions even though their ability to reason was fully functional. He concluded that reasoning “depends, to a considerable extent, on a continual ability to experience feelings.”

For example, would you buy from someone you did not trust? Trust is an emotion. We feel it in our gut (subconscious). The science behind making decisions proves that, although we are not logical, we are mostly predictable in the choices we will make.

Understanding human behavior gives you insight into why your audiences choose what they choose. It helps you select which intrinsic elements must be addressed (and how) to improve the likelihood of a win.  I recommend reading the following books to learn more about behavioral psychology and how to use it to create effective proposals:

1.    Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely
2.    Nudge, Richard H. Thaler
3.    The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

I use graphics to make clear, compelling, award-winning presentations. My understanding of human behavior supports the benefits of visual communication. For example, based on mountains of research (and personal experience) the quality of the presentation communicates the quality of the content and the presenter.

Humans cannot isolate emotions from decision-making. Knowing how our audiences think improves success by connecting stated goals with unstated desires.

By far, the best path to understanding what your audience really wants is by asking the right questions; however, science tells us that our audience may not want to or may not be able to articulate their true wants or needs. For this reason, use research and an understanding of human behavior to fill the gaps and connect the dots for your audience. Do this and you will be more successful.

About the Author:

Mike Parkinson is an internationally-recognized visual communications guru and presentation expert, professional trainer and award-winning author. He is a partner at 24 Hour Company, which specializes in proposals and presentations. His Billion Dollar Graphics website and Get My Graphic website share best practices and helpful tools.

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