Four Audience Personas Challenging Your Presentations

You’ve just started your presentation.  You look out at the faces turned your way and you begin to speak.  The words come easy because you’ve prepared and practiced. Some people are nodding and some are smiling, but some are frowning and some are looking out the window.  You suddenly feel unsure of yourself and fall back on your heels.  But don’t panic.  Rest assured that what you’re seeing is completely normal and expected.

I know because I work with some tough business audiences.  I teach sales seminars that invariably include Sponges, Vacationers, Experts, and Prisoners.  This is not a new concept.  Even though sometimes called by different names, four types of audience personas are generally accepted.  Based on my experience, I believe the four can easily be sorted by two variables: positive/negative attitudes and active/passive behaviors:

  1. Sponges (aka Explorers and Learners) – Positive Attitudes and Active Behaviors

Sponges give you warm eye contact and frequent head nods.  They likely arrived early to get a front-row seat.  Speakers and trainers love Sponges because they really want to hear what we have to say.  They give us encouragement to press on even when the after-lunch low-sugar let-down comes.  But don’t fall into the trap of speaking only to Sponges and ignoring the others. Include everyone in the conversations.

  1. Vacationers (aka Shoppers) – Positive Attitudes and Passive Behaviors

Vacationers have warm smiles and vacant stares.  They’re off in their happy places with sandals and boat drinks.  But they’re salvageable.  The key is to bait the hook with something they’re interested in and reel them back into the room.  Compliment them on something.  Ask their opinion.  Find a way to get them to tell a story.  Don’t let Vacationers off the hook.  If you can engage them in the moment, they can be valuable contributors to group discussions.

  1. Experts (aka Judges and Graduates) – Negative Attitudes and Active Behaviors

Experts are found in almost every crowd.  Frowning. Working with technical wizzes over the years I’ve had several in a room at the same time trying to out-expert each other.  Some Experts never meet a factual statement they can’t refute.  They’re usually smart.  Don’t argue with them.  Acknowledge their expertise and let them share their knowledge, but help them allow others to speak.

  1. Prisoners (aka Cynics) – Negative Attitudes and Negative Behaviors

Prisoners avoid eye contact.  They don’t want to be with you.  They may not want to be with anybody.  Perhaps their boss sent them not knowing that it means they’ll have to work over the weekend and miss their kids’ ball games. Or there’s a personal problem.  Prisoners don’t join in discussions.  They’re different from the shy ones; they have an aura of hostility around them. But you don’t know their situations, so don’t put them on the spot by confronting them.  If you can, approach Prisoners at a break and engage in small talk. You might be able to win them over just by being kind and understanding.

These are just a few thoughts on how to identify and deal with the four basic personas people reveal at presentations and business meetings.  Clearly, not everyone in the audience is the same.  Not everyone is as enthused about your presentation as you are.  But if you pay attention to each individual and take steps to bring them together, both you and they will benefit.

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