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Meet the Parents – Meet your Audience

MARCH, 2016


Do you remember the first time you were introduced to a partner’s parents? This is what I would call a pitch for another’s approval. You probably recall being nervous and saying very little, only speaking when spoken to. Your reluctance to speak first is no doubt because you were uncertain about your partner’s parent’s interests. Do they approve of where you are from? What job you do? How you are dressed? You care about the impression you make and you only want to say the right thing, so you keep quiet until you think you have figured out their inclinations.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt” Mark Twain

If we afforded the same level of respect to our audience in a commercial pitch we would all be better at pitching. Unfortunately we tend to think any invitation to pitch is an unencumbered expression of interest in us. This is a mistake. An audience is extremely unlikely to be interested in us at all. Sad but, true. Their interest extends only to whether we have something to say that is of interest to them. They are surrendering their time in the hope we say something interesting.

When preparing our pitch we typically fail to acknowledge the audience’s narrow attention requirement and prioritise our time as follows: 1) Create a cool looking pitch deck. 2) Confirm who says what. 3) Get the numbers right. Some way down the list is giving due consideration for the audience’s interest.

The low priority we give our audience is partly because we think we are unable to ever know our audience’s true interests and partly because of our predilection to only invest effort in things we think we can control. We perceive our audience to be an opaque, hazy mass of unknown, outside of our control, to which we respond by declaring ‘better not make any assumptions than make some and get them wrong.”

However, by knowing some simple facts about our audience we can craft a pitch far more attuned to their interests.

“An audience is dramatically more likely to pay attention to us if we fit the goal they have for that situation.” Peter Bazalgette

Getting Inside An Audience’s Mind

Having a good understanding of what an audience is looking for comes down to our ability to read their mind. We all know someone who has an uncanny knack of reading the minds of other people; they have what psychologists call a ‘strong theory of mind’ (a good level of empathy). These people tend to get on with any partner’s parents.

One way to build empathy: Walk a mile in another person’s shoes….

Empathy with a pitch audience is difficult because we often know very little about them, they are relative strangers to us. The famous Primatologist Frans de Waal said “Empathy is extremely biased, empathy is biased towards individuals who are similar and familiar, you are much less affected by strangers who are in pain or in trouble than by your own family members who are in pain or in trouble… it makes you indifferent to strangers.”

How then do we empathise with people that are not similar or familiar?

We can begin to understand our audience’s minds by gathering information about them, we can ask them directly, ask indirectly through our network and we can use third party sources via an internet search. This is good practice but, what do we do with all this information? Build personas? Make a few assumptions? I like to use the information in a way that directly informs my pitch, I use an Audience Continuum.


Audience Continuum

Whenever I pitch I will take the background information outlined above and shape its content to give meaning for my pitch. I work out the disposition of the audience along a gradient from open to closed, conservative to liberal etc.

I apply this approach to two crucial pillars of my pitch:

1) Humour

2) Narrative


One useful piece of information that is easy to discover about your audience is their age bracket. I use this information to determine how I target humour in my pitch.

Of course age is not the only measure to inform humour, you can also think about gender, socio economic group, profession etc. I have given talks to accountants and auditors and although their outlook may be conservative I was able to achieve comedic moments because they all came from the one profession. When we know our audience have one thing in common we can target our humour accordingly.

Warren Buffet is famous for being terrifically rich as well as being a great public speaker. I saw him giving a speech to a bunch of people interested in investing and before speaking he tapped the microphone and instead of saying ‘testing one, two, three’ he said ‘one million, two million, three million’. Everyone laughed because everyone understood the joke, everyone was an investor or had an interest in investing. Were the audience a mix of artists, social workers and software engineers perhaps the joke would not have been so successful.


If humour is the equivalent of salt on meat then a good narrative is the meat of any pitch. Matching your narrative to your audience is crucial to your pitch’s success.

Whenever I help people pitch for funding I show them the below diagram, based on Aswath Damodaran’s book Narratives and Numbers.

By identifying your audience’s interest beforehand you can determine whether you pitch for the stars (Elon Musk and SpaceX) or whether you keep it grounded and talk about cash generation (think Pret A Manger). The Audience Continuum for narratives would suggest giving a highly aspirational narrative if you have angel investors in your audience. Equally if your audience is full of old time value investors you should consider a narrative that is far more tempered.

If you are pitching products or services you will with time gain an appreciation of your prospective customers interests with which you can create your own Audience Continuum. You could take an existing customer categorisation model such as Geoffrey Moore’s (as set-out in Crossing the Chasm) and place customers on the spectrum between early adopters and laggards and adjust your narrative to reflect these outlooks.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Meet The Parents – Meet Your Audience

Pitching is exciting and it’s natural to obsess over what we can control “right, what can I do to impress my audience?” we ask. The true answer to this question is

  • Care to get to know your audience and
  • Adjust your pitch accordingly.

Many people get to know their audience but few use this knowledge to inform their pitch. The next time you pitch summon up the memory of the first time you met your partner’s parents and treat them with the same level of respect and watch your audience engagement fly high.