Knowing, understanding, and valuing your audience
As some of you may have heard, I recently made the next jump in my career, and in a move that shocked nobody who knows me, I am now working for Veeam. One of the biggest “cons” that was on my list while evaluating the opportunity was the fact that I would no longer be a part of the Veeam Vanguard, a program that I have the utmost respect for – for its mission that it is looking to accomplish, the fashion in how it strives for this, and of course the people.
All that being said, I was fortunate enough to be able to deliver my first in-person presentation in this role at the Veeam 100 Summit in Prague (which included my beloved Vanguards). For some background, Rick Vanover has a super simple way of classifying content: a traffic light.
- Green – you are good to talk about this; it is or will be publicly available information
- Yellow – embargoed: you can talk about it after a specific date/time
- Red – this does not leave this room
That context is important as the session I delivered was “red”, for reasons that I will not go into to avoid any speculation (hopefully). So what is the point of this post? I wanted to share some thoughts and insights which I reflected upon from this experience in the hopes of helping others.
Well we have or esteemed former #VeeamVanguard @MattThatITGuy talking about NDA stuff which will reach the masses in due time after the #Veeam100Summit pic.twitter.com/faaUcGtIgS
— WorkingHardInIT (@WorkingHardInIT) October 25, 2022
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
This can mean many things to many different people. As a Technical Account Manager for VMware, I would find myself needing to jump from technical speak to business speak, sometimes within the same conversation or sentence. If I told a VP or CEO that their SSO Federation was broken due to a Kerberos or NTP issue, they likely wouldn’t understand that. Similarly, if I told a Systems Administrator that a purchase might not go through because it is an OpEx and not a CapEx that can be depreciated, they may understand, but not care about the “why”.
Where am I going with this? Understand what story or details the audience wants to hear. Sometimes you’ll have a mix of many personas – this can be tough, but being able to pivot on your feet is a tremendous skill. How do you know if you have an engaged audience, or if you’ve lost them?
Feedback doesn’t just come in the form of a survey or a web form somewhere. You can typically start getting feedback live through body language. Since March 2020, a lot of us have been on endless Zoom / WebEx / Teams / etc. calls, and as someone who presents, let me tell you how hard it is to gauge reactions when a camera is off. When you hit a patch of silence, is it because attendees are deep in thought? Are they busy trying to get other work done? Are they even there?
Presenting in front of a live audience is a golden opportunity. When you talk, you can see who is listening, who is typing, who is nodding off, and who is pondering something and is about to ask a question. All too often presenters just read from their slides, and avoid eye contact with the audience. That can be a huge miss! When you make a statement, gauge the reaction – did it get the response you wanted? If so, great! If not, think about what was off or missing.
Everyone has their presenting style. Personally, I like to make things more conversational – that can mean different things. If it isn’t an interactive session, I prefer to talk as if I was chatting with an acquaintance, trying to explain something and the reasons behind it. However, whenever possible, I thoroughly enjoy presentations to be interactive. Audience participation adds a whole new level of energy to the session. One great way to get participation is to ask for feedback.
UNDERSTAND YOUR ASK
I’ve experienced this from both the audience and presenter sides, many times for both. The presenter asks for feedback, a piece of feedback is given, and the conversation starts to become a bit defensive. It might all be with good intentions. For example, the number of times that I’ve asked for feedback, was provided feedback, and then I start explaining why things are the way they are. Generally speaking, that is fine, but it’s what is next that is important.
Typically, you can take the approach of dismissing the feedback (i.e. “here is why it is this way, and it won’t change”), or you can take the approach of empathizing and digging deeper (e.g. “here is why it is this way, but do you have any thoughts on how we can overcome this challenge?”). Now, don’t get me wrong – sometimes things simply can’t change, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants it that way. However, if you ask for feedback, be prepared to listen – you didn’t ask for a debate.
And one of the most valuable follow-ups after someone gives you feedback? Ask a probing question. If it isn’t clear, ask them why they think this would work, or if they see any other gaps that it might introduce. It’s now your turn to learn something: what does your audience think is valuable.
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