Presenting at Conferences to People You Don’t Know

If the audience for your business presentations is usually the same group of people—your internal team or a well-known client group—your assessment of them can become pretty instinctive and even subconscious. You share a common working language, and you know what challenges they face, what their business goals are, and what approaches to information they will find effective or persuasive. But some jobs, especially higher up the org chart, can involve a fair amount of presenting to completely unknown audiences at industry conferences. When you do your assessment of an audience you haven’t met, additional considerations come into play in order to ensure an effective presentation.

Audience Analysis – Don’t Skip This Step!

First of all, ask yourself who they are and why you think they’re coming to hear you. Conference audiences usually have a choice about whether to attend a presentation (unlike team members or clients, whose work depends on your content), so ask yourself what value you’re delivering to this particular group at this particular conference. Sometimes you know a little bit about who’s likely to attend based on the organization sponsoring you. An investment club, job fair, or small-business speed-dating event comes with pretty clear expectations of what attendees are there for. Shaping your presentation around the content needs and expectations of those general audiences is pretty straightforward most of the time. But an unknown audience brings with it additional considerations that you may not be thinking about with your old familiar crew.

Who Are They & What Do They Already Know?

This is not about getting to know each individual in the audience. It’s about making educated assumptions about the conference attendees’ interests, understanding the degree of knowledge they may already possess about your topic, identifying misconceptions they may have about the topic, and so on. During this analysis, you’ll likely make the realization that the group will be made up of people with varying degrees of knowledge and interest levels.

Another thing you can do is ask them questions about their needs or interests during the first few minutes of your presentation. For example, “Let me see a show of hands. How many of you are already using Artificial Intelligence in your work? How many of you work in the development of AI products? How many of you are using AI in your organization’s marketing efforts? How many of you are just now starting to dabble in AI?

You’ll need to make sure you address all of these levels of expertise during the presentation. For example, “Many of you are already familiar with the four stages of a product life cycle. For those newer to this topic, the four stages are introductory, growth, maturity, and decline. For our purposes today, we’ll discuss the growth stage.”

You may also have to do a lot more explaining than you’re used to when it comes to terminology, acronyms, and data.

  • Analyze your terminology in the context of your audience. For example, let’s say you are the founder and CEO of a company that makes adhesives, and you are presenting to a group of chemical engineers at the annual conference. Here’s how to think about them and adjust your presentation content accordingly:

o   They do know basic and advanced general chemistry terminology.

o   They may or may not know terminology specific to adhesives.

o   They will not know the terminology specific to your company or clients.

Acronyms are different not only from industry to industry but even among companies. Spell out your acronyms the first time you use them, both verbally and on a slide. This gives your audience two opportunities to learn what that acronym means. It’s a good idea to use the full term a few times before resorting exclusively to the acronym. For example, if you’re presenting to a group of technical writers, you might say, “When you use the style guide of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE…” a few times before you refer solely to IEEE.

Finally, remember that your listeners may not understand the context in which your business operates. For example, if you say, “We have a 34% success rate in lowering clients’ supply costs,” your audience may not know whether to be disappointed or impressed. Simply adding context like, “…and the industry average is 19.5% according to federal regulators” will ensure that your audience understands how your company compares and why that statistic is significant.

From a practical standpoint, to present effectively to an unknown audience, you have to consider why they’re interested in hearing from you, what they probably already know, and what you’ll need to teach them in order for them to get the most out of your conference presentation. Do your analysis work up front, and then, don’t shy away from asking questions of your audience and changing your plan just a bit to address the specific needs of the group who chose to spend their conference time with you. It takes extra effort on your part, but it’s worth it in the end.


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About the Author: Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now EVP of Learning and Business Development. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches and holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s founder, Dale Ludwig.



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