The easiest speaking assignment in the world starts with, ‘We’re just looking for a little fun. Come motivate our people.’ But increasingly, speakers are providing solutions to some fairly high-level managerial challenges, and our topics are reflecting that. It entails a shift from ‘create a fun vibe’ to ‘help us with some deep cultural trouble-shooting.’

It’s not uncommon to see conference presentations today addressing challenges like ‘how to survive recession,’ ‘how to compete with an informal economy that doesn’t obey the law,’ or ‘what to do about the rising tide of artificial intelligence.’

Any presentation that addresses a negative hurdle in the lives of the audience can present a challenge for the speaker. Among the most difficult occur when the negative hurdle is a behavior of the audience itself. That assignment starts with some variation of: ‘Our people are too scared to take risks. Come and change their mindset,’ or: ‘Our sales are down. We need them to try harder. We’d like you to tell them that.’

The tricky balancing act for the speaker becomes this: Who do you please? The management who hired you to speak? Or the audience?

Why would there be a distinction?

It is absolutely possible to help an audience with a cultural problem, and to leave them better off for the ideas that you have shared. But there is an art to doing it properly. The project fails when it sounds like you are simply repeating the tirades that they have heard (and grown weary of) from their managers a hundred times before. That sort of ‘tow-the-line’ presentation looks and feels like an ambush. If it’s patently obvious that management has paid you to say that, then the message doesn’t work.

Yet done correctly, it can work. It works precisely because you are an independent outsider. You are not management.

It’s the same dynamic as your child refusing to listen to your advice on a problem, but lapping up the ideas of their best friend, even when the advice itself is identical. For speakers, ‘sounding like a parent’ is a disqualifier. But sounding like their ‘friend with a cool new idea!’ can be immensely powerful. This outsider factor is no small part of the value of what we do.

But you have to please both

I’ve learned a few lessons about the balancing act implied in this two-sided contract. It is easy to err too greatly on one side of this dynamic or the other.

Let’s start with ‘pleasing the audience’:

-     Firstly, lectures are out. Anything even vaguely preachy will confirm their suspicion that you are simply repeating spiked management mantras. You have to make your points with clear logic and persuasive benefits that speak for themselves. Try to avoid anything remotely accusatory. Instead, focus on creating a tone that says, ‘Let’s explore a fascinating idea together…’

-      Secondly, management-orientation is out. If your entire message is delivered as though your only concern is making the lives of leadership easier, the audience will see no value to themselves. You must re-orient the information that you deliver to show how it works in their lives, and how it might help them to attain career goals. It’s the difference between, ‘Management wants you to be nicer to customers,’ versus ‘The better you serve customers, the more you will be known as a superstar with a bright career ahead.’ The audience must genuinely perceive that you are on their side.

-     Thirdly, you have to openly acknowledge their fears and objections. But explore them in a way that is non-accusatory. For instance, when I speak on innovation, I explore the idea that people become so emotionally involved in the old ways of doing things that they are unwilling to try the new. To simply state that fact in that blunt manner would be accusatory and would raise hackles. Instead, I tell stories about organisations who have befallen this problem, to their own detriment, thus removing the audience present from the line of fire.

I also actively sympathize with those who committed the error in my story examples, saying, ‘You can understand why. It’s deeply human. These people have spent ten years optimizing and perfecting their system. They value it, and they don’t want to simply abandon it. But here’s what happens when they can’t let go…’ In this way, I’ve taken the dynamic outside of the realm of accusations, and explored it as an independent curiosity that we can all pick up, turn around in our hands and observe.

-     Finally, I try to provide highly specific ‘how-to’ prompters. One of the most powerful ways to genuinely alter behavior is to identify the trigger event that precedes an undesirable action, and then preload a different reaction to it.

Take the example of drinking alone in the evenings. Say that you’ve decided that you want to change this behavior. You’ve identified the trigger event that precedes it – perhaps reading a post on social media that makes you feel bad, which inevitably leads to a consoling glass of wine. Your key to changing your own behavior is to teach yourself ‘When this happens, I’m going to do that instead,’ and you then preload an alternative action. This might translate to: ‘When I read a negative social media post, I’m going to go for a walk instead.’

I like to use this simple but powerful device to suggest behavior-changing prompts to my audience. It gives them a concrete starting point, and a specific way in which to alter their own behavior for the better. Perhaps most importantly, it helps me to genuinely meet my brief from management, which is to show them how to change.

But here’s the problem

In trying not to repeat management mantras, and in phrasing the ideas differently to the way management has briefed you, it is entirely possible to leave management itself feeling as though you did not listen to their brief. The fact is, you actually did. You simply disguised it so artfully that it looked like a different creature, unrecognizable even to them. In this way, it is quite possible to get the job done well, but not to appear to be doing so, in their eyes.

To solve that side of the problem, here are a few ways to ensure that you please management as well:

-     Always start by getting a good brief from the people who ‘own the problem’ that you have been hired to address. Who wanted you at this event, and why? Ideally, see if you can have coffee with them and take notes about their frustrations. Make a point of being seen to take notes – it is perceived as an act of caring.

A telephone call or email briefing will do too, but make sure that you actively display the fact that you care about meeting their objectives, using phrases like, ‘I’d like to ensure that I customize this to your particular group. What challenges are they facing this year?’, and when they provide you with this information, make a point of stating that the insights are useful, and that you will build them into your talk.

-     Customize your presentation, and make it look customized. Firstly, your message should genuinely be designed for that particular audience, based on the brief that you received. But more than that, it should look that way to the people who hired you. There are a few simple things you can do to achieve that. Add their logo to your first slide. If it doesn’t detract, use their logo subtly on every slide. Do they have a theme for the day? Can you use it repeatedly in your talk? If it’s feasible, try to use a photo of their building or their product or an individual from the group, or a photo of a news article about them, on at least one of your slides, as you speak about a principle that is relevant to them.

-     Consider referencing one of their competitors, in a way that helps you to make a point. Strangely enough, this reference to their ‘enemy’ also serves to validate the notion that you are speaking directly to them, on the grounds that you clearly know enough about them to know who they compete against. Tread carefully here, though. You don’t want to say anything about the competitor that could come back to bite you in the jiggly bits.

-     Be socially present and speak directly to the group, in the tone of a friendly conversation. If they are celebrating a milestone (“We’ve been in business for 50 years!”), start by openly congratulating them on this achievement, then use that opening statement to link into your first idea. If something humorous or poignant has happened recently with the group, see if you can incorporate that into what you say, either for a laugh, or to make a point. These small touches go a very long way toward making the organizer feel that you were present in the moment, not merely going through the motions, and that the presentation itself was special and unique to them.

-     Is there something unique about the venue that can be built into your presentation? For instance, did management elect to host their event at a racetrack, an airport or a theatre? If so, why? And can you incorporate a reference to it? 

-     Even if the nature of your content entails that you don’t speak directly about their situation, but rather, that you use outside examples to illustrate the core issue you are addressing (which I do, in order to avoid the ‘spiked message’ problem), make sure that you deliver your information in a way that does not make it seem like you are detached from them and speaking in a vacuum.

This occurs when a speaker’s message is so removed from the sense of a ‘conversation,’ that the audience perceives they could get up and leave, and the speaker wouldn’t even notice. It’s remedied with very simple verbal techniques, such as rhetorical questions: ‘Has that ever happened to you?’ and with simple comparative phrases, ‘I was thinking about the challenge you’re facing this year. It’s similar to something Apple dealt with two years ago…’ These verbal callbacks transform your information from a ‘lecture-in-a-vacuum,’ to a poignant conversation. And they are cues to management that you are, in fact, touching on the points that you had discussed in your brief.

So all told, the answer to the question, ‘Who should I please, the audience or management?’ is really: Both. But there are some competing dynamics of which you must be aware.

You must work hard to make the audience feel that you are genuinely on their side, and that you are here in the moment, discussing some cool ideas that will benefit their lives, not simply regurgitating management slogans from a distance.

But you must also subtly indicate to management that this whole presentation is designed to meet the goals to which you previously agreed.

It sounds like quite a lot of psychology, and in truth, it is. But that’s why top speakers command high fees. As we often like to point out, it’s not the hour of speaking on a stage that is the real value. It’s the understanding of the total situation. It’s the solutions to tough problems. It’s the change that we bring. And it’s all of this, while still coming across as a caring friend and trusted advisor.


Douglas Kruger is a global speaker and author of five business books with Penguin Random House SA. He has won the national championships for Public Speaking, through Toastmasters International, a record 5 times.

In 2016, in honour of excellence in his craft, Douglas was inducted into the Speakers Hall of Fame, by the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa. See him in action, or sign up for his free newsletter, ‘From Amateur to Expert’ at Email


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