Answer people’s key question – which they never ask! (F!RST framework – part 1A)

Question Mark Key on Computer Keyboard

You’re probably wondering what the key question is – which is good, because that’s keenly focused your attention!

The key question is what every audience silently asks of every presentation. Tweet this

What do you think that burning question is? It’s this:

“What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)

Note: If you’re looking for techniques for answering questions that the audience actually asks, see Stop Q&A hypnosis – keep audience attention during your talk or webinar

(For context, please see the overview of the F!RST framework.)

If you show any sign of disregarding your audience’s needs, you’ll lose their attention instantly because they’ve painfully experienced “self-centric” presenters many times. So instead, to keep your audience glued to what you say, let them know in 4 ways how your talk benefits them:

Let’s look at those 4 ways you can show the benefits to your audience.


Use questions or issues for structure

This is the best way to approach your topic from your audience’s viewpoint Tweet this

To me, this is the best way to approach your topic from your audience’s viewpoint, and hence to answer their greatest question:

What’s in it for me?

The idea is that you find questions or issues (ideally 3 of them) that your audience find most pressing about your topic, and then you design the body of your talk to discuss each one in turn. For instance, if your talk’s about lending money through, you might call its first section:

Why lend money through

Olivia Mitchell explains this technique in detail in her brilliant guide to structuring your talk around likely audience questions.

Having a vivid structure also helps hugely to make your talk memorable, so it’s a great place to start work. (I also recommend you show your talk’s structure in a picture.)

While you’re dividing your talk into major sections, it’s worth allotting time to each one at this early stage – both speaking time and preparation time. (That helps you stay on track throughout, so you don’t run out of time during your talk, or while preparing!)

For instance, if your talk’s a 45-minute webinar to your organisation’s employees on major changes to work practices, you might allot times like in this table, which also gives examples of what you might name each section of your talk. (For tips on naming your talk – or its sections – see Involve people through the title, below.)

Audience-focused section name Old “speaker-centric” section name2 Speaking time Preparation time
How to ask a question during the webinar Administration 2 minutes ½ hour
What’s wrong with our “old way” of working? The “old way” of working 5 minutes 1½ hours
What does this “new way” look like? About the “new way” 10 minutes 3 hours
How does it affect you? Effects on staff 10 minutes 3 hours
How does it affect your external contacts? Effects on other organisations 5 minutes 1½ hours
If you have questions or comments Questions 10 minutes 2 hours
What we need to do next Summary 3 minutes 1 hour
Totals:   45 minutes 12½ hours

(2 The 2nd column shows what you might have called each section in the past. It’s included here to show the contrast with the more audience-focused names in the 1st column.)


Involve people through the title

Even before you speak,
let people know you’re focused on them. Tweet this

You can do that by including 1 or more of these 3 options in your talk’s title:

  • A question1 your audience might ask
  • An action your audience will do
  • A mention of your audience, like by using “I”, “you”, “your”, or a job title or role they identify with

(1Questions also have the benefit of being intriguing.)

This table lists some example titles and shows which of those 3 options each one uses:

Example titles Question Action Mention
“How can I focus audience attention?”
“What are the best ways to focus audience attention?”
“3 ways to focus audience attention”
“How to focus your audience’s attention”
“How the best presenters focus audience attention”
“Audience attention – what it means to you”

A title like those also helps keep you focused while you create your talk. So, try to draft a title early in the process, write it down, and keep it in sight while you work. If alternative titles come to you later, write them down too!

(For more example titles, also see Use questions or issues for structure, above, and Use a tempting title in the next post.)


Answer overtly, early, and often

In a sales presentation, begin by discussing the client’s situation, not yours Tweet this

Right from the start of your talk – and throughout it – discuss your audience’s needs. That’s a huge step towards a meeting of minds on your topic. For instance, if your talk’s a sales presentation, begin by discussing the client’s situation, not your company, product, or solution.

Then, for as many of your talk’s points as you can, show the benefits from your audience’s viewpoint, instead of talking about your product’s features. And even if there aren’t audience benefits for a particular point, still approach it from their standpoint, not yours.

For great results in any presentation, you can use the 3-step model for pitching ideas, advocated by Jim Endicott, a presentation veteran. It goes a bit like this:

Step Start a sentence by saying… Example Purpose
1 “You know how [you suffer when]…?” “You know how it’s really hard to keep people’s attention away from their mobile phone or email when you present, especially online?” Shows you know and care about your audience’s issues, and influences people to agree with you already.
2 “Well [my solution is]…” “Well this article gives you 3 specific ways to keep people’s attention, face-to-face and online.” Neatly presents your solution to their issue.
3 “So [the benefit is]…” “So your audience is far more engaged, making it much easier for you to persuade them and to achieve your goal.” Makes the benefit(s) of your solution crystal clear.


Say “you” more

Another way to focus attention is to use the words “you” or “your” often (and seldom use “I”). It’s a bit like mentioning people’s names – it makes them listen out for what you’re saying about them or their situation, which are 2 of their favourite topics! (It’s suggested by Patricia Fripp, former president of the National Speakers Association in the US.)

In fact, I suggest you formalise the process and actually count how often you use the words “you” or “your”. If you write out what you’ll say, you can use your word processor to count the occurrences, and then express that as a percentage of the total word count. (Writing it out is a good idea anyway because then you can more easily repeat or revise your talk, or have other people do so. It’s also the 1st action in the next part of the series – Minimise “blur”.)

Aim for “you” and “your” to make up 5 to 15% of the word count

Aim for “you” and “your” to make up roughly 5 to 15% of the total word count. (To give you some perspective, this post rates at around 9%.) Obviously, the percentage just gives you a rough measure of audience engagement, but it has 3 big advantages:

  • It’s concrete, so for instance you can quantitatively compare different versions of a talk.
  • You can use it anytime, especially while writing your talk.
  • It’s easy to measure using your word processor.

By the way, some people suggest you should avoid saying “you” because it can sound preachy. To me though, that depends solely on the context in which you use it (as I wrote in reply to this comment below). For instance:

Saying “I urge you to follow these steps” is fine.


Saying “You have to follow these steps” sounds bossy.

As former public-speaking world champion Craig Valentine puts it:

“Use a soft ‘you’… I don’t like hard ‘yous’ because they
turn off audiences. Hard ‘yous’ are when you say things
like, ‘YOU have to do this and YOU have to do that.’ ”

Use “you” to mean your current audience

Here’s one last tip about the word “you”: Do use it to mean your current audience. That might sound blatantly obvious, but sometimes content for another audience gets reused. In that case, unless you reword the content, any “you”s in it mean someone else. And misusing “you” like that is extremely damaging – it disengages your audience because it shows them you don’t care about them. (It’s a bit like if a salesperson’s presenting to a client named “XYZ” but keeps calling the client “ABC” – who would do that?) Likewise, also avoid referring to your audience in the 3rd person (as “customers”, “staff”, “users”, or some other generic term), which is similarly rude!


Next steps

In the next post, you’ll see 9 specific tips for intriguing your audience, starting with 4 experts’ ideas on how to make your talk’s title intriguing.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your views:

  • Which of the 4 main points in this post resonated most with you?
  • Are there other tips you’d recommend?

16 thoughts on “Answer people’s key question – which they never ask! (F!RST framework – part 1A)

  1. Thank you so much for referring me back to this post Craig! It’s extremely useful and I’ll shamelessly steal it in my instruction (with proper attribution, naturally). I find extremely useful the idea that “how you name your sections” can also influence how much emphasis you put on the audience.

    A quick question: where I can, I send out short surveys (3-4 questions) to workshop participants and ask them to name their top issues and what they want to learn the most. The response rate is low (30% at best) but informative enough. But I wonder about other ways. Have you found better ways of getting input from audiences you speak to?


    • You’re welcome! And it’s great to hear that you’ll share these ideas. (For other people reading this, the reference back to this post is from a comment I left on this post by Brad Philips.)

      Interesting question you raise, so thanks for asking. Here’s my 2 cents

      Like you, whenever I try “audience participation” beforehand, the response rate is low. So you might try these thoughts:

      • I like that your survey sounds so short. Do some answers use checkboxes or a Likert scale or similar, so they’re easier to complete than freeform answers? (See my post about feedback forms.)
      • Is the survey online, so it’s very easy for people to send back?
      • You could make the survey part of the registration form (if it’s not already), when the reason for attending is likely to be top-of-mind and the participant’s already actively engaged. Downside might be that some people could find the rego process too much, but that shouldn’t be the case if you keep the questions optional.
        (See my tip about replacing most webinar polls that way.)
      • At the start of your workshop, you could ask each person what they most want to learn, write the list on a flipchart, pin it up somewhere, and then address each point during the workshop. I first saw a trainer do that about 20 years ago, and was hugely impressed!


      • Hi Craig sorry for taking a few days to respond. As I’m becoming accustomed to – the tips you offer are GREAT – I will immediately start thinking about trying, for instance, the scales (will read your post on that – your blog is like a deep well of resources that never runs dry!)

        What you saw that trainer do IS really impressive. Not sure I have the confidence to do that yet 🙂 But it’s now a personal goal of mine!

        Once again thank you for the extremely generous sharing – maybe one day I’ll be able to write posts with as much depth as yours!


        • Thanks for your support and for your very kind words. I’m delighted you’re finding the blog helpful – that’s mission accomplished!

          I’ve been writing posts for about the last 3½ years, and I like to richly link between my related posts, so after a while you do get quite a network of material built up.

          Also, I must say many of the ideas shared here aren’t my own – I’m just happy to pass them on and credit the people I get them from (like Charles Green, who inspired the post about feedback forms).

          I look forward to following your own posts. Sharing as you do such great content both on Twitter and on your blog, you deserve every success!

          (By the way, I just published a post about that tip of writing people’s wishlist on a flipchart.)


  2. Wow, this is an excellent, value-packed post. I love the idea of writing your post as an unfolding narrative that answers audience questions at each step. I think I started doing this around a year ago. People kept saying “Tell a story, tell a story” when referring to a presentation, but this really threw me off. The reason is that a story has a loose structure (e.g. context, conflict, climax, conclusion), which doesn’t always fit so well with a technical presentation. When I realized many presentations can be thought of as narratives with information and details unfolding naturally as the presentation progressed, it made more sense.

    Your post put more structure into my thinking, and I’m going to bookmark this as a go-to reference!


  3. Hi Craig,

    This post is very useful for creating an audience-centered perspective. I’ve taken some notes, and have improved the headings in a guest post I just wrote.

    I, too, am an instructional designer by training, merging ISD with web content development, program development, and visual communication through my coaching and writing business.

    I’ve signed up for your blog updates, and look forward to hearing more from you.


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  5. Craig, thanks for writing this up. I found the Question-Action-Mention option for titling especially useful.

    On one point, I think a qualification might be in order: I’m talking about the use of “you” rather than “I.” It’s a good point that “you” mentions audience members directly. However, it also suggests a hierarchical relationship: “You” need to do this, or “You” need to know this, because “I” am clearly above needing such things.

    This seems perfectly fine for a classroom or lecture hall teaching situation, where there is not meant to necessarily be any sense of the teacher and students being equals. It seems to me to apply less well to some other forms of public speaking, for instance a keynote delivered to get across controversial information (unless it’s the speaker’s intention to assert superiority as a means to convincing the audience–not the route I would choose to take).

    With that said, I understand your site is mainly about instruction per se, so I don’t know that my point has much applicability to most readers. However, your titling idea seems useful in many areas, so I thought I might mention it.

    Luc Reid


    • Thanks for your comment Luc – I’m glad you found the Question-Action-Mention option useful.

      With the use of “you”, I think there’s no intrinsic hierarchy between that word and “I” – any hierarchy is created by the context in which they’re used. Certainly, saying “You need to…” (as in your 2 examples) has a very different feel from saying things like “You can…”, “You benefit by…”, or “You have many options.” (Also note the example at the bottom of the table in the Use questions or issues for structure section – it says “we need to” rather than “you need to”.)

      I do agree that where the topic of the talk is controversial, extra care is needed in the wording so as not to appear to be (metaphorically) pointing an accusing finger at the audience. Generally though – whether in teaching or not – using “you”, “your” and the like is a great step towards overcoming the typical topic-centric or speaker-centric approach found in most talks.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, and I hope you continue to find things of use here.


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