How to Recognize Your Audience: Transferrable Lessons from the Speaking Profession

Listen in or read Sarah’s interview with Jane Atkinson, a well-respected speaker, and coach. Jane and Sarah discuss how the exponential power of recognition can have a significant impact on your success as a speaker, whether it’s how you deliver your message at work, for small groups or on the main stage in front of thousands of people!

Sarah: I’m so lucky to interview Jane Atkinson, a well-respected speaker, and speaker coach. Jane, you have some great insights and wisdom from having seen speakers progress, or not progress, in their career, and how recognition can have a pretty big impact on that. And I know your wisdom fits both those who speak for a living as well as those looking to have a bigger impact when they share their ideas in a meeting, present at a team meeting, or even present to their board of directors. So, let’s kick it off by me asking you for some words of wisdom about how to recognize those listening to you present.

Jane: Well, I think that there are a lot of things that you can do to have tremendous recognition for your client, so in my world, it’s professional speakers who have a client who has a goal. I think the best thing that you can do to recognize them, sure, you can send them a beautiful gift and a promotional product after the event is done or when you get the booking, but one of the things I think will have the most long-lasting impact is really giving them something of value that they can hang onto, so there might be language in your presentation that can become sticky, and what you might offer them are ways to keep the language alive for a long time after the program is going.

Maybe there are little coffee mugs or something that can keep it going, and I think from our perspective, from a speaker’s perspective, the best form of feedback is to go into a boardroom six months after you have spoken to this company and hear them using your language. Doing a great job and giving them some language that really sticks, that they can hang on to and start to build into their culture in order to make this a thing that goes beyond them, the ripple effect.

Sarah: I really love that, Jane, because oftentimes, we think about recognition in terms of something you have to give to people, that it’s something extra, it’s something different, but I agree. When you do an exceptional job and people can remember what you’ve said, it’s transformative in a way that truly helps people solve a problem. Recognizing their time is precious and you’re there to help make things better for them. What additional specific suggestions can you pull from the professional speaking world to help speakers of every type recognize their audience?

Jane: Well, this is not even just a secret for this audience. It’s a secret for everybody because not a lot of professional speakers are using a specific form of recognition.

Joe Calloway gave me this one and he does it brilliantly in his business. The key is making the audience the heroes of your presentations, and Joe even takes it one step further and he might make the CEO or the leader the hero of his presentation by moving it out of a presentation mode into him interviewing the leader of the organization to pull out the kinds of things that we want the audience to know, so that’s one idea, but also let’s say you have a three-part formula that you’re going to unveil in your presentation.

You can ask ahead of time for the person running the conference, “who are three people who are well-liked and respected that I might be able to interview to get some firsthand knowledge of the audience?” and so they’ll give you three people and you will go and do your research and you will ask them questions that are really specific to your formula, and when you say, “This is my idea,” and you say, “And Susan Jones just used this idea. Stand up Susan,” and then you’re recognizing Susan and Susan becomes the hero of your story. This works if you’re in a small or large group. Whether you’re an outside hired speaker like Joe or an internal speaker.

Sarah: I wish that I had this sage advice back when I was doing corporate presentations! I reflect on how many times I and others would be trying to communicate a burning platform and create that sense of urgency only for it to fall flat. And I’m realizing now it’s because we were trying to convince them of our idea, not bring them in to be the hero and partner in the possibility.

Shifting gears a little, one of the things I love about what you do is you start your presentations (even your book) with a compelling vision that as an audience member or reader I can feel. It’s for me. I’m the centre of it. You say, “Picture this,” or, “Imagine” and then you put us into this desired future which actually you may or may not know from the solution-focused approach that I write about that is actually a wonderful way to get people super excited, because you’re presenting their best hope. To your point, you have to know them well enough to know what that best hope is and really care about it to create it.

Jane: Yeah, and that comes with your research, with understanding the company or the association (and you have the upper hand if you’re a member of it), knowing their values, knowing what’s important to them, and also knowing their pain points, because if you can help solve their pain points, well, then you’ve really, really done a great job. Honestly, if it was up to me, and I were going to get either a box of chocolates afterward or a really amazing speech or presentation, I would take the really amazing speech any day. So, we think sometimes that trinkets or swag or flash equal recognition, but I actually think it’s the whole package.

Sarah: Yes, that old adage it’s how you make them feel. Have you left them better off? One of the ways you know you’ve done that is when afterward folks say, “Wow, it’s like you were speaking to me” or, “You know what, I never thought of it that way,” or, “I’ll never forget that story of so-and-so.” I think that is one of the best forms of recognition that you can get in return, and that’s the reciprocal part of recognition, right? Is that you recognize and value your audience, and then they recognize you back.

Jane: It feeds you. It keeps you going, and I think that you can ask a question; “Well, how long would you like this message to last?” A lot of people who are putting on an event, they might be thinking just about that event, but what if it’s the cultural shift that they’re trying to achieve? What if they’re trying to make it a culture of recognition? How do we make it last longer than the presentation or speech? What will allow us to go deeper on this idea?

Sarah: It’s really believing that your audience can and will be able to make positive change from what you share. And, to do this, it’s not one-way sharing of information (or worse telling people what they’re not doing right, how they need to do better, what they don’t know). It’s honouring what’s working, what they value, what is working even a little.

When I speak on recognition, I have to be careful not to make the audience feel they’re being scolded for not recognizing enough. Instead, I give them “calls to action” where they can practice more recognition, no matter how much they’re already doing. And the best part, often the people behind the scenes – the bathroom attendant, the registration clerk, the meeting organizer – gets a kudos I’ve given the audience as the call to action. An ED of an association I just spoke for shared, “When I was sitting there listening to your talk, I never would have thought that it was my staff who would get the recognition. I just assumed the members would bring this back to their workplace but you wouldn’t believe how over the moon my staff are being recognized! They’re used to being behind the scenes and everyone forgetting about how hard they work to make everything happen.” The audience feels good, the members feel good. How do we make people in the audience the heroes?

Jane: Oh, and honestly Sarah, I have to tell you, I have to work hard at this. This is something that comes naturally to you because you think about it 24/7, but I am not as good at it. I just ran a meeting, and in the meeting I should have recognized my assistant who had done so much hard work to get it ready more, and you gave me some great ideas on what to do after the fact, but I really felt that and I thought, “Gosh, I think it becomes a part of your DNA when you do it often enough,” and so I could use some more of that recognition DNA rubbing off on me.

One of the fallback positions I have is, “Okay, as long as everybody walks away with what it is that they need, great, then we’ve done a good job and we’ve had a good meeting,” but at the same time there might be that one person who’s going, “You know, I did a lot of work for that and I didn’t get recognized.”

Sarah: Such a great point. And thank you for sharing that Jane. I think it’s always really valuable when somebody who’s really well-respected, professional and poised also acknowledges where they’re working on something, so thank you for that.

Jane: I’m a constant work in progress. No question about it.

Sarah: So am I. Thank you so much, Jane, for your time today. I know this is really, really valuable because speaking is part of every professional’s job. There isn’t a single person who doesn’t have to do a very brief presentation at a team meeting or pitch a new client or speak for the whole organization! I love all the insights about how to recognize your audience, including specific members, making them the heroes and leaving everyone better off by having been in the audience. Super valuable Jane. Thanks so much.

Jane: You’re welcome.

Sarah: If you’d like to connect with Jane, you can reach her at [email protected]

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

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