(Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Tom Pfeifer’s upcoming book, Write It, Speak It.)
The first rule of all good writing is, “It’s not about you. It’s about them.” There is a school of thought that if you write what you like, others will like it too. To a certain point I agree, because if the topic doesn’t interest you, that lack of interest will come through to your audience. But writing for yourself only takes you so far.
People today have the ability to target just what interests them and shut out the rest. In such a world of targeted expectations, if you want others to read your prose or come to hear you speak, you need to know what interests them. More importantly, you need to know why they are interested in reading your prose or coming to hear you speak. Think: “What’s in it for them?” Because I guarantee you, they’re thinking: “What’s in it for me?”
I began my professional writing career as a journalist. My job was to accurately convey an event to those who could not be there. I can hear the anti-journalists snickering. And yes, I have read stories about a meeting I attended and wondered if the journalist was at the same meeting. But by and large, it was my job to accurately describe the meeting or event. I was my readers’ eyes and ears, as most journalists try to be. As long as I focused on my readers and what was in it for them, I wrote accurate, well-rounded stories. I also tried to make the stories as entertaining and interesting as possible, but accuracy came first. That’s why readers read my stories. That’s what was in it for them.
And because of that, I was well-respected in my community—respected enough that a Republican congressman later hired that liberal journalist as his communications director. Then, my audience became the congressman’s constituents, and I wrote what was in it for them through my boss’s eyes. Whether I was writing a speech, a newsletter, a press release, a tweet, or any other communication, the focus was always first and foremost on what was in it for the constituents.
It’s the same whether you are writing for a reader or a listener. Sheryl Roush, an international speaker from San Diego, broadens her reach—and income—by providing local public speaking workshops in conjunction with Toastmasters conventions. At the end of her workshops, Sheryl asks her audience for golden nuggets—the one thing each audience member will take away from the workshop and implement in his or her own public speaking repertoire.
At one workshop, my golden nugget was: It’s not about you, the speaker. It’s about the audience.
By then, I was not only writing speeches but delivering. I always wrote speeches with the audience in mind, but I wasn’t delivering them with the audience in mind. Now I repeat to myself before I write and before I speak: It’s about you, not me. The spotlight is on you. Not me. You’re here to learn something. Or to be entertained. And I can give that to you. I want to give that to you. Because I’m a giver. And nothing makes me feel better than to give to people.
As humans, we’re wired that way, to give. It’s how we evolved and survived. Without cooperation, without caring for our children and our elderly, without making sure that all made it through the winter, we would have died out as a species long ago. Scientists have found centers in the brain that are stimulated when we give. It literally makes us feel good to help others. So if you put yourself in the mindset—without getting haughty about it—that your purpose is to give to your audience, your writing will be more focused. On stage, the butterflies won’t go away, but they will fly in formation.
This is how important knowing your audience is to writing. Novelist Kip Langello wrote nine novels that didn’t sell. Then Langello created Peggy, a fictional but precise reader. Everything he wrote, he wrote for Peggy. Would she laugh here? Would this frighten her? Would she curl up with her husband at this turn of events? The next book Langello wrote sold for six figures. Peggy approved.
So think about what’s in it for your audience. Are they coming to hear you speak to be entertained? Are they coming to hear you speak to be informed? Are they coming to hear you speak to be inspired? What do they look like? What are they wearing? What do they do for a living? Are they happy at work? What’s in it for them will dictate the form, the structure, and the tone of your speech.
Your audience isn’t composed of fictional characters. They are real people. You can find out about them. Professional speakers discover all they can about the real, living, breathing people who will be in an audience before they sit down to write. Before giving workshops, at the very least, I send out a questionnaire to assess my audience’s level of knowledge about the subject and to discover their most burning questions. Then I can tailor my presentation to their wants, needs, and expectations. At the event, I also try to talk with the attendees before I speak and incorporate what’s appropriate into my presentation.
After all, it’s all about them.