Knowing who your audience is critical when you are trying to influence others and have no direct authority over them(there are lots of other things to consider, too, as we discuss in Learning Tree’s course Influence without Direct Authority). This is also a key issue in Learning Tree’s Negotiation Skills course where, in order to get a deal, you need to put together a proposal that is attractive to the person you’re negotiating with. But, as I discovered recently, identifying and addressing your audience is isn’t always easy.
A few months ago, I was trying to gain an invitation to present at a UX/UI design conference. The process is simple: I send in a proposal for a talk I could give at the conference, the conference organizers review all of the proposals they received, invitations are sent to the applicants whose proposals the organizers liked. The organizers get far more proposals than the number of available speaking slots so crafting a “good” proposal is critical to getting an invitation.
Obviously, I have no influence over the conference organizers so this really is a case study in exercising influence without authority. To exercise that influence, I have to understand my audience and send a proposal that they will think is “good.” Which raises the question: Who’s the audience for my proposal?
The obvious answer is: The conference organizers.
However, the real answer is a little more complicated. While the conference organizers are going to be reviewing my proposal and deciding whether to accept it, they’re going to be reviewing the proposals with an eye to another audience: The potential attendees for the conference. The conference organizers are looking for proposals will cause potential attendees to say things like “That sounds interesting,” “I’d like to learn about that,” or “That’s exactly a problem that I struggle with.” Or, to be very commercial, “I can get my organization to pay for me to attend that conference.”
Which means there’s now a third audience: The people who pay for the potential attendees to attend the conference. It’s possible that the third audience isn’t all that important — that they simply rubber stamp requests to attend conferences. It’s equally possible, however, that the third audience needs to see some benefit for the organization that’s paying for the attendee to go. For my proposal to succeed it should suggest some benefit to the organization that’s paying for the attendee.
If you’re ever negotiated a business deal, you recognize this as a common problem: You have to propose a deal that’s not only attractive to the person you’re negotiating with but one that they can sell to their management. While you could leave it up to the person you’re negotiating with to figure out how to make that sale, you’re far more likely to get what you want if you can provide a solution to that problem, also.
Under these conditions, the solution is to write different parts of my proposal for my different audiences.
One part of my presentation is addressed exclusively to the organizers. The organizers wanted enough information about me to feel confident that I would get my material in on time, show up ready to give the talk, give an intelligent talk, and not offend any of the paying customers. For that, I just sent in my resume highlighting my experience at presenting at conferences and in the UX field to suggest to the organizers that I wouldn’t look like a fool when I stood up to talk.
Appealing to the other two audiences (the potential audience members and their managers) is trickier. I needed to send in a description that the organizers felt would appeal to those audiences.
Unfortunately, this conference isn’t aimed at my usual audience of software developers: this is an audience that I’m not very familiar with. When you’re trying to influence or negotiate with people you’re unfamiliar with, the worst thing you can do is assume that the audience is “just like you” or “just like some other audience” that you are familiar with. What you absolutely must do is research this audience to find out what matters to them.
Fortunately, that research is seldom hard to do. Often, the group you’re researching has put material on the Internet, explaining themselves to the rest of the world (an organization’s mission statement is often very helpful, for example). Another good research source is material created by other people that attempts to influence the group you’re researching — if that material has been successful in influencing your group then you should copy it. In this case, for example, I had an excellent resource: The descriptions of the speakers’ presentations from previous years, which were all available on the conference’s website.
If this had been the first or second year of the conference, I would have looked at those previous descriptions skeptically as a guide to what would influence the potential attendees and managers. However, the conference has been going on (and attracting attendees) for almost a decade now. On that basis, I was willing to assume that the conference organizers had figured out what sort of proposals turned potential attendees into actual, paying attendees. These were also proposals that the primary group I was trying to influence (the conference organizers) obviously liked because they had invited those speakers. Spending some time understanding existing proposals would be time well spent.
Thirty or forty minutes with the previous year’s presentations gave me a number of insights into what was considered a successful presentation by the conference organizers and, I assume, the conference attendees. I learned about what problems worried my target audiences, what presentation titles resonated with them, what sort of style they were looking for in a speaker, and what they valued in the solutions that were offered for their problems. With that information in hand, I wrote the rest of my proposal and submitted it to the conference.
And this story has a happy ending: I did get an invitation and, come November, will be presenting at edUI in Charlottesville, Virginia. You should come to the conference, it’s going to be great. More importantly, the process demonstrates the benefits of taking the time to identify the real audience, perform research to compensate for your own limitations, and writing for multiple audiences.
And, if you do come to the conference, please come to my talk.