Sunday, April 19, 2009

Adapting to the Audience

Recently, I worked with a rabbi to help him prepare a pre-Passover sermon. He worked hard to prepare and practice a meaningful and powerful message. The rabbi tended to need to write everything down beforehand and was working on developing a more conversational, spontaneous style.

Little did we know how far he would take that.

The morning of the sermon, he says in his own words, "I looked out and saw - the audience for the drash (teaching) we worked on was just not there. In its place were two families in shiva, two or three people out of work, a few dealing with illnesses. Hurting people."

So this rabbi did something quite courageous. He adapted the speech at the last minute to make it a sermon about hope.

He told himself, "If I really am committed to what I have to say, and to my relationship to the audience, I will be able to speak without the notes."

Which he did.

Afterwards, one person said, "Great drash." Another said, "I don't know if you worked on this a lot or just winged it, but it meant a lot to me."

Indeed. This rabbi went beyond simply giving a great sermon. He connected directly to the individuals he was speaking with.

From the Green Room: Prepare. Then, when necessary, trust yourself to be able adapt your speech to the audience when necessary. The connection you make with the people in the audience will be worth it.


Anonymous said...

Suppose you realize, say, a third of the way into a presentation that you have completely misjudged your audience. What strategies or techniques could you use to salvage the remainder of your allotted time? What do you think about actually sharing that realization with your listeners, letting them see you physically set aside your prepared text, and perhaps engaging with the audience in some dialogue?

Sarah Gershman said...

Good question...While everything depends on the situation, I would do as much as possible to avoid "misjudging" your audience. Do your homework and learn as much about them beforehand as possible. If you notice new things about your audience along the way, try to adapt your speech to meet their needs.

But if you do end up dramatically misjudging them, I like the idea of putting it on the table - since they probably figured it our anyway. And engaging in dialogue could be an effective way to reconnect with them.

But keep in mind - that you are there to give them something - not just to engage in conversation.

In the case of the rabbi, he speaks to the same audience every week. There is no way to further do his homework. He knows them well enough to be able to be present with them and do a check-in every week.

Justin Szlasa said...

This is very true--and it cuts to what is necessary to give a truly great speech which is respect for your audience. It is easy to forget and I have forgotten it many times myself--your speech is not about you. It is for your audience. So it is more important to pay attention than to be prepared (as an Eagle Scout it is hard for me to say anything is more important than being prepared but it is).

Sarah Gershman said...

I do think that preparation is absolutely vital. But good preparation is not just preparing substance but taking the time to really understand and meet the needs of the audience. If you do this relationship-building and focusing beforehand, you will better be able to adapt your speech in the moment.