THE BLOG
05/22/2013 01:06 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Know Your Audience

Business people seem to spend their lives making presentations, both formal and informal. Many of us get to the point where we think we can "wing it" in practically any meeting or venue. That's generally not a good idea, though.

One of the problems with winging it is that we tend to start giving the same presentation over and over. This is especially true for entrepreneurs, but it can happen with anyone in any size company. The problem with this is that not everyone wants to hear the same thing. Knowledge of the audience is incredibly important in developing your thoughts regarding how you will approach the discussion or presentation.

Let's focus on start-up entrepreneurs, since they wear all the hats in a company, i.e., they are not only the chief executive, they are the chief sales person, the chief finance person, the chief strategy person, the chief marketing person, and so on. And entrepreneurs make a lot of presentations. The lessons, however, are applicable to those with even very narrow jobs in the largest of corporations.

Many entrepreneurs need to raise outside financing, and will often go to what I will call professional investors, that is, those who invest money in a company in return for an ownership stake. Investors have a specific mindset -- they want to figure out if they will make money out of this venture. So while their ultimate concern will be their return on their investment, the way they figure that out is by finding out the size of the addressable market you will be going after, how fast the company can scale (grow larger), who the competition is and how big the threat from them is. They really want to know the skills, capabilities, and network of contacts that the founders have. A rule of thumb in an investor presentation -- and this generally works for bankers as well, if you prefer to secure debt financing -- is to spend 80 percent of your time talking about the business and only 20 percent talking about your product or service.

When approaching a possible strategic partner, some of this carries over. They will still be mostly interested in your business, but you should spend a little more time talking about the product, and how the partner's product or delivery network (or whatever the issue is) will complement it. What are the areas of mutual interest? How will each company grow and prosper if this partnership is consummated?

Finally, of course, we have your basic sales pitch, in which you are, indeed, trying to sell your product. This seems simple, right? We just talk about all the neat whiz-bang features it has. Or if you are selling a personal service, you can talk about how incredibly pampered the customer will be. In a professional services environment, you probably want to talk about how smart your people are, right? Well, even here, step back and think about things. Consumers and business customers alike have problems they want to solve. They want to know how your product or service will solve that problem. They want to know more about the benefits rather than the features. They want to know the value you will bring. So in your presentation -- or even a simple discussion over a cup of coffee -- answer the "so what?" question. What do all those fancy features really mean for the customer? That's what they want to hear.

The bottom line here, then, is to know your audience. What do they worry about on a day-to-day basis? What is their actual goal; what can they expect to achieve after listening to you? What do they really want to buy from you?

Entrepreneurs specifically and business people in general are constantly selling. You might be selling your product or service, or perhaps your business concept and plans. You might simply be "selling" the information you possess that is needed to make a corporate decision. But make no mistake, you are constantly selling. And the best way to achieve success is to understand the needs of your audience, and then prepare your message in a way that meets those needs. Do your research, know who you are talking to, and structure your discussion in a way that will grab and hold the attention of those you are addressing.