Some years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of school children. Even though the subject of today’s column isn’t about humor, laughter was the subject of my talk for the kids. Not only am I a pretty funny guy (my wife and stepdaughter’s opinions notwithstanding), but I have studied in great detail how humor works in the brain, in everyday life, and how it affects communication and relationships. The teacher who called me thought it would be interesting for the children to know how our brains work when it comes to that most human of reactions; laughter. She also thought it would be socially educational for the kids to hear a message about what are not considered appropriate sources of humor. I told the teacher I could handle the first request, but as far as kids laughing at what kids think is funny, I am no miracle worker.
The real point of today’s story isn’t what I talked about, it is about who I spoke to. The teacher who arranged the presentation taught fourth grade. Knowing that the audience would consist of nine-year-olds was certainly an important consideration as I developed content. (Meaning that I should probably omit the theory that laughter is a homeostatic mechanism through which psychological tension is reduced.) The first rule of public speaking is know your audience.
A week before the presentation, the teacher called and said, “Another teacher at the school heard about your speech and thought it would be a great topic for her class. Would you mind speaking to a larger group? We would move from my classroom to the media room.” I didn’t have a problem with more kids. As long as the teachers stayed by to chaperone, bring ‘em on! A few days later, the teacher called again. Yet another teacher had heard about my upcoming talk and wondered if her class could join the fun. This would mean moving the whole group to the auditorium. The teacher was nervous about asking me to take on a much larger group. What she didn’t know was that, for those of us who speak and entertain for a living, the larger the audience the better. “Sure,” I said, “three classes of kids is really no different than two.” Can you tell by now that I have never been a school teacher?
Now is when the story gets interesting. I prepared a presentation geared toward about sixty nine-year-old children. I showed up at the school, was escorted to the auditorium, and waited for the kids to file in. The first class arrived; thirty giggling fourth graders. After a few minutes, the second class arrived; thirty second graders! Then the third group walked in; thirty twelfth graders. So I was to explain how humor worked to kids aged seven, nine, and seventeen. I was to access the specific knowledge base, intellect, maturity, attention span, and interest level of and audience ranging from post-toddler to pre-adults. My talk was scheduled for one hour. When I looked at the clock, I literally saw the second hand stop moving. I found out later that it had indeed stopped moving; the teachers pulled the plug so they could get a longer break.
I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I do remember being more focused than for any presentation before or since. Every concept and example I spoke about I thought, “How can I make this accessible to the little ones and still interesting for the older ones? How can I not talk over the heads of one group without sounding like I’m talking down to the others?” The entire presentation demanded that I think about what was most relevant to each audience member; what was most on their minds at that moment in their lives. Not an easy task, given that what was uppermost in the minds of the second graders was remaining in constant motion, while the fourth graders were most concerned with trying to be funnier than me (the goal being met, in their minds, by inventing as many ways to emit noises from their bodies as they could), while the twelfth graders were most concerned with what the other twelfth graders thought; especially those for whom a romantic interest had sparked.
What surprised me was how well the session went, especially given that I had to completely scrap my original outline. People are surprised to hear me say that, since I am a professional practiced in improvisation, but the rule of thinking on your feet is creativity is borne of structure. And the situation into which I was thrown caused me to abandon almost all my prepared structure. What took the place of structure—indeed, what the lack of structure demanded—was focus. Because I couldn’t just coast along, referring to my pre-planned outline, my focus on the audience’s needs and interests was my only guide. And because I focused solely on my audience, my audience was better served. All three grades were engaged throughout the presentation. And all the kids said it was “cool.” I was never called cool when I was in school, but the wait was worth it.
Next time you are preparing a presentation, think more about your audience than your outline. Make sure the information you are eager to share is what they really need, or want, to hear. You might start by asking yourself, “What would I do if the audience I didn’t expect walked in the door?
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.