August 13, 2021 / Esther Choy

Audience engagement starts with research and strategy.

Imagine writing a company-wide memo to hundreds of employees informing them of the exciting news: your company has sold! You heap praise on the buyer and on the ways this acquisition will impact business opportunities. You give some financial updates and talk about the company’s value through this development. After months of keeping it under wraps, you are so thrilled to finally share all of this news company-wide.

There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: you forgot to research your audience.

But why should you? You already “know” your employees well enough, right? Well, they begin reading this memo, and from their perspective, they are suddenly navigating change that might affect their jobs. They immediately have a dozen questions about redundancy, about chain of command, and about how their work lives will change under new leadership.

Not knowing your audience could confuse, alarm, or just bore them. In my book, Let the Story Do the Work, I share a framework for getting to know your audience. Considering their existing knowledge, what they care about, and what they need to hear allows you to deliver a focused and persuasive message to accomplish your goals and sell the message you need to sell. As Seth Godin has noted, “You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged.”

Prioritizing your audience, here are four steps you can take to research and engage them in your next big company announcement (or your next sales pitch)!

Step 1: Assess Your Audience’s Relationship to Your Topic

To begin, take a sheet of paper and divide it into Column 1 and Column 2. (You can also use our free template.)

In Column 1, write down everything you think your audience already knows about your topic. In Column 2, write down everything you think your audience doesn’t know, but should. This includes new knowledge as well as its implications.

This exercise not only allows you to see what information you need to deliver to your audience, but also helps you avoid assumptions about them.

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Step 2: Do Your Secondary Research—In Context

What is secondary research? Using existing information. Whether your audience is the heads of your company’s international offices, a room full of major gift philanthropists, or the faculty of a business college, there is plenty of data available both publicly and internally which you can use to fill in your notes columns. Consider their occupations, priorities, and challenges. Think about their goals and what they would find most useful to learn from you.

A common challenge around doing secondary research is there’s simply too much info out there; how do you avoid falling down a rabbit hole? Setting the research in context can set up a guardrail. This is why you need to do Step 1 first.

Step 3: Do Some Primary Research

One of the best steps you can take in strategically preparing your message for an audience is to field test it on a representative from that audience. Why? Secondary research is important, but input “from the horse’s mouth” will give the most specific guidance. They can give you insight into what’s missing, what’s confusing, and what information sticks once your presentation is over.

Your primary research doesn’t have to involve someone who will literally be in your audience; they just have to be similar enough to your audience—in context—to give you relevant feedback to help tailor your message. Individuals you know in similar roles or industries can give you constructive guidance.


Tell the right story for any business situation - we'll give you the tools.Step 4: Learn and Adapt

At this point, you have collected valuable information about your audience, but no matter how well you prepare, you can’t anticipate everything. Adapting in the moment of presenting—of telling your story—is essential.

Take cues from your audience with empathy. Leverage a connection with the people you’re speaking to. Can you see boredom in their body language? How about confusion on their faces? How much are they looking at you and responding to what you are saying? Be aware of your own body language. Be aware of your tone and your delivery speed.

Years ago, I would tell the story of how I had taught a Master’s level capstone course on predictive analytics for business decisions at the University of Zurich. I would get mostly blank stares from my American audience.

Over time, I realized that for most people, this story simply needed to be, “I used to teach in Switzerland.” Their faces lit up and they nodded with understanding.

This exercise in researching your audience boils down to two questions: Why should my audience care? And what do I want them to do about it? When you know your audience, you can answer those questions, and you can spur them to action.

What do you do in those cases where you don’t know who your audience will be? Scenarios like these are why we build story libraries. Common shared experiences make for instant connectors. Need help finding and telling your stories? That’s what we do.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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