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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Know your audience

By Kevin O'Toole, February 09 2021 12:01 am

I know that I touched upon this issue before, but a dear friend, Matt Eventoff, who happens to be a highly sought after public speaking and communications consultant for Fortune 500 executives, tells me that a refresher course is in order. I guess given the unusual amount of time spent in front of our office cameras doing Zooms, Webinars and the like, a basic reminder about knowing your audience can’t hurt.

This column isn’t just for those ambitious politicians (or wannabes) running in Legislative Districts 2, 8, 16, 20, 21, 37 and 39 – this user-friendly column is for anyone who now finds themselves fumbling with anxiety as they position for that next Zoom call or is readying themselves to deliver a talk or speech, political or not.

A couple of basic lessons:

  • Have some kind of basic agenda ready to hit the ground running.
  • Remind yourself repeatedly as to your specific message, write it down if that works for you.
  • Remember most of your audience members are on as many Zoom calls a day as you are, which means everyone has limited bandwidth, so be direct and to the point.
  • Don’t forget effective speaking points from pre-COVID and try hard to use them (even though it is really difficult). Don’t be monotone, stare at the camera to try and create an effect of eye contact, and use physical and oral cues to move the discussion along.
  • Finally, and most importantly, remember who your audience is and what they are most receptive to. The same script does not work for everyone.

These five separate and distinct principles seem fairly innocuous, but all too often people fail to abide by these common sense practices, and simple meetings turn into misdirected discussions with no end or goal.

By all accounts, I have delivered a few thousand (give or take a few) speeches in my lifetime. Certainly, in my early days I’m sure that the “Know your Audience Mantra” was elusive to me. And I can remember a time a few times that I completely lost my footing and was misreading or failing to read the room — epic fail!

Let’s go to the last point first — know your audience. When you are scheduled to speak, get the ground rules down and know who you are you speaking to. Is it a working class group, Manhattan Institute, anti-cannabis crowd, pro-teacher, union representatives, anti-vaxxers, progressives, staunch conservatives and so on. I’m not suggesting that you simply tell the audience what they want to hear, but you need to be aware of what they are tuned in to, their expectations, their focus and, most of all, what is important to THEM.

Many times, we tend to fashion ourselves as gladiators or boxers in a ring. So ask yourself, before a fight would you not watch “tape” of your opponent to know whether they are right or left handed.  This familiarity makes you more comfortable and your presentation more effective.

Now let’s jump to the points in the middle. Have a clear message and pathway to get there.  In most cases, you need to effectively explain how you can help the folks on the other end of the call.

Why? Casual conversation at the beginning or end of a meeting is much harder when we are all booked with video conferences.  There is no time for pleasantries or closing remarks as you walk out of a meeting room together.  Minutes now matter, and with a limited attention span, it is important that your messaging be crystal clear.

Given that we are all now in sterile environments scrubbed with Clorox wipes, you have to be creative about drawing people in. You have to use your words to recreate the environment you would normally be in.

Years later, I can still remember the smells in my old legislative office, the Statehouse, the Senate Chamber, etc.  That is because ALL rooms have some kind of scent, feel, views, sounds (the creaking in older rooms) and even tastes. The only thing that exists for most of us on Zoom is linear eyesight (into the camera) and sound through earbuds – no background noise. So, try to use descriptive language when making your points.

Once you have set the stage, and walked your audience through your agenda, hit your message directly and repeatedly.  I have seen too many politicians walk into a political discussion without basic research or preparation – not smart. Once you have decided on the message of the day — drive it home.

My example, when Jim McGreevey ran against Governor Whitman in 1997, remember it was a good year for Republicans and it was supposed to be a runaway by the incumbent Governor. Then along came State Senator McGreevey who honed his message and limited his offense to two critical, yet very real and relatable points — car insurance and property taxes. McGreevey was a robotic campaigner (that’s meant as a compliment). He was high energy and no matter what was being discussed he would weave in those two points to every single response.

Jim, how is the weather? Balmy and every time I get in the car and turn on the a/c I’m reminded how much I pay in car insurance and property taxes thanks to Governor Whitman. Jim, what kind of ice cream do you like? Chocolate (he probably poll tested the most popular ice cream — chocolate is 17% and vanilla at 15%) and Governor Whitman is responsible for high car insurance and higher property taxes.

Well soon this one-two punch broke through and the stubborn and persistent underdog challenger lost by a mere 25,428 votes. Jim won 10 of the 21 counties and this election result shocked Trenton insiders.

This stunning result paved the wave for his landslide victory in 2001 (which was followed by his cataclysmic collapse). Point to remember – know your message and let it bleed out and good things should follow.

You get my point. Jim McGreevey was ALWAYS on message.

No one woke up last March and realized that most of our communication was going to be via videoconference. And we are all very fortunate that this technology exists. While it’s a far cry from in person meetings, it allows us to see one another and have some sense of normalcy in these times. I still won’t apologize to my kids for making them put their phones down at the dinner table.

Some bonus tips for all of us that Zoom:

  • Dress for the camera. While shorts and sweatpants are funny on Tik Tok, they don’t play well when the camera catches the fashion misstatement;
  • Assume the microphone is on, even if video feed dies;
  • Mute your sound at all times that you are not speaking – same for a conference call;
  • Don’t flaunt exotic locales or backgrounds — people don’t care to see you at Atlantis or Turks while the rest of us toil in our stagnant basements trying to keep our kids quiet; and
  • Don’t dominate the conversation. As the late Larry King said, “I never learned a thing when talking.”
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