The Consequences of Failing to Deliver on Audience Expectations

I was sitting through a presentation recently and almost walked out of the room, which is something that I never do. With the understanding that comes with choosing to speak, present and teach for a living, I know how challenging it can be to design a presentation and how nerve-wracking it can be to face an audience. With that understanding comes empathy for speakers, so the threshold to push me over that edge to want to walk out of the room during a presentation is pretty high.

One of the reasons for my hesitation about staying or going during this particular presentation was because I get asked from time to time if, since I am an instructor, I find myself judging every presentation that I sit through. The answer to that question is, no, absolutely not. If I am sitting in the audience during a presentation, I am there to learn from the speaker, not to be a critic of their work. While I do often think that there are things that speakers could do to drastically improve the quality of their presentation and their delivery, those observations don’t play a role in my decision about whether my time spent in the audience was worthwhile or not. One of the most significant factors that I consider when assessing my “return on investment” for sitting through a presentation is whether or not the speaker met my expectations for the content they delivered. Did I walk out of the room having learned what I believed I would learn walking into the room? While great presentations exceed your expectations, the ones that fail to meet the minimum of expectations are the ones that leave you disillusioned.

What I will cover in this article is, firstly, the reason why I almost walked out of this recent talk so that I can provide a concrete example that leads into the second part of the article. The second half of the article will look at some things that instructors and presenters can do to shape, deliver upon and exceed the expectations that their audience has.

The Talk

The particular presentation noted above was about the lessons that were learned in the aftermath of a well-known mass shooting, and was presented by a person who was on the ground in an organization involved in the incident, so it had the makings for what should have been a great talk. The invitation to the talk was enticing and included information provided by the presenter saying that the discussion would be focused on the soon-to-be shooter’s behavior that was observed in the months before the attack, would correct the rampant misinformation that the media focused on after the incident, and provide a firsthand account of the threat assessment process. After quickly checking my calendar to make sure I would be able to attend, I didn’t hesitate for a minute to register. I was looking forward to an engaging recounting of the event, littered with objective facts not covered in media reports and a behind-the-scenes look at how decisions were made by the organization in response to those observed “red flag” behaviors. As many of the pre-event indicators of the shooting that have come to light through the ensuing investigation are also factors that other organizations are dealing with right now when assessing the threat potential of people who have been identified as possibly becoming violent, there was an incredible opportunity for this speaker to contribute to the betterment of the entire security industry with this presentation.

I arrived to the presentation early to get a good seat and was ready to go with a notebook and cup of coffee in hand as a representative from the organization introduced the speaker, reiterating many of the same concepts that were in the invitation to the talk. I was thrown off, though, as the speaker opened up the discussion with an unrelated short story that I believe was designed to paint him as the victim of circumstances in life and to essentially say that sometimes shit just happens outside of your control. As the talk was supposed to be about lessons learned from a shooting in the hopes of preventing the next one, this story left me a bit confused, but it is because I wasn’t expecting his thesis statement for the talk that he was about to deliver. It turned out that the “lesson learned” following this particular shooting was that police officers and security professionals should always follow reporting processes so that, when things inevitably go bad, you can “Cover Your Ass” (CYA) by stating that you followed procedure.

As I stared at him in disbelief, it became clear that this was actually the focus of the talk, that because certain processes for the situation (the mass shooting) were broken in the days that followed the attack, a lot of people above him in the organization were fired as a result. It turned out that we weren’t going to talk about how this particular shooter actually slipped through the cracks so that it doesn’t happen again, we were going to focus on career self-preservation. His message wasn’t about how they could have saved six people from getting killed, it was about following process so that you can’t be fired or held accountable for events that occur because you went “by the book.” If you want to learn more about why “Processes Are For Winners,” come back to the site next week to read an article explaining why systems thinking makes operators more effective in their jobs.

Every time the presenter said, “You have to CYA,” it was like he was blowing cold air over an exposed nerve for me and, with each repetition of his message, you saw more and more people in the audience close their notebooks. The audience showed up that day expecting to learn about where another organization’s threat management process failed to prevent an attack so that they could improve their own. There was an expectation that this organization had conducted after action reviews and a failure analysis to understand where their process broke down in previously unforeseeable ways and was ready to share those insights. Because the presenter failed to fulfill what was advertised, he failed to deliver an informative, educational or memorable presentation.

While the presentation was not successful because the presenter failed to deliver on what was promised, the reason why I almost walked out because of his arrogance of putting his career ahead of the lives of six innocent people who didn’t have to die.

The Lesson For Presenters

I tell this story because the best presenters that I have met have all been striving to improve the lives of those in the audience during their talk. I have never met a presenter who spent the time and effort to build a presentation, only to step in front of a crowd of strangers hoping to fail. But even in a presentation that provides great content, when a speaker fails to meet the expectations of the audience, the result can be unfortunate.

Years ago, as a brand new instructor, I used to look at what it took to exceed audience expectations from a very narrow perspective. I believed that exceeding expectations was merely a result of what I did once I got on stage or in front of a classroom. It was a matter of how strongly and persuasively I delivered my presentation. While that is still true today, what I have learned is that my understanding about when a presentation begins wasn’t accurate. It turns out that a presentation doesn’t begin the moment I say the first word, it starts when each member of the audience first hears about the presentation or the class. Everything that happens between that first moment when they hear about the topic of the presentation to the moment you start talking is what shapes their expectations for what you are going to ultimately speak on.

These expectations might come from the reputation that you have, the way that your website looks, the clarity of the information that is presented on your LinkedIn profile, the activity on your Twitter account, the public online reviews of your work, or the way that you look and dress. Your audience is establishing expectations based on the way that you are introduced before you speak and the summary of the talk that is presented in the conference agenda. All of these factors influence what people are going to demand from you when they commit their time or money to hear you talk. Establishing those expectations around topics and the point you will take them to by the end of the presentation begins by ensuring that everything you are doing should be about establishing a desired expectation, and then surpassing it. But exceeding expectations is more than just putting together well designed marketing material; it also requires that your presentation and material is tailored to the audience you are about to speak to.

“Knowing your audience” is a pretty cliché statement, but it goes deeper than the lip service that many people give to the topic. The way that we recommend a presenter starts to define their audience is by dividing the professionals in your industry into three different segments. There are “operators” (the police officers on patrol, the sales rep who is making the calls, the security professional on the ground), there are the “supervisors” (the people who lead and manage the operators), and there are the “decision-makers” who might be looking at overall capabilities for an organization, setting the direction for the organization or leading and managing the supervisors. Each of these segments has their own unique set of responsibilities, challenges and goals that they deal with each and every day. By defining and understanding these three segments and taking the time to identify the decisions that are unique to their segment/level in the organization and their own list of things that keep them up at night, you become capable of tailoring your talk to the appropriate level.

One of the quickest ways to fail to deliver on audience expectations is by presenting material fit for a different segment. For example, presenting information with the level of detail needed to educate operators might very well turn off people at the decision-maker level who are looking for bigger picture ideas and don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of a topic. However, talking to operators with the broadness that might be required for success with decision-makers might leave them feeling unsatisfied because they weren’t taught the specifics that they need in order to improve how effective they are on the job. While presentations can be built to touch on the needs of every segment, if the presentation ends up becoming too unfocused, you risk turning off the entire room. However, if you focus solely on one of those three groups, it may cause you to only exceed expectations for a single segment and fail with another. In a one or two-hour long presentation, the difference in material might not be significant enough to make people realize that it isn’t addressing their needs specifically, but in a one or two-day long class, they absolutely become noticeable and impact how valuable people view the presentation to be.

In order to ensure that you prepare for the right segment, one of the easiest ways to determine who is going to be in the audience is simply ask the conference organizer or the person who is bringing you in to speak to their organization. In every single one of our coordination calls with a client or conference, the question, “When we step off of the stage or conclude a class, what does success look like to you?” gets asked of them. We ask the question this way because the words that a person uses to explain this almost always reveal who they want us to focus our instruction on. We then follow their answer with a brief explanation about the three segments in the audience and say something along the lines of, “It sounds like you want us to really focus on (whatever group they mentioned). Is that correct?” If their answer is immediate and decisive, we can begin supporting them with marketing material to raise awareness about the class, we can look at our presentation and ensure that the takeaways from each section are appropriate for that audience, and we can edit our speaker bio to ensure it has the elements to establish our credibility with that audience. By knowing who you will be speaking to, all of your other expectation-setting actions become clearer because you now have a clear definition of who you need to educate.

After re-reading that last paragraph, it might seem that the audience for every presentation is clear-cut and exclusive, but the reality is that those clear distinctions are rarely the case. If you ask a client about the audience and it isn’t a decisive answer, perhaps including a, “Yeah, I guess so, but also don’t forget about …” you might need to find other ways to work with the organizer. If there are going to be decision-makers and operators in the same room, maybe you offer to do a shorter and more focused version of the presentation for the decision-makers either before or after you finish with the longer class designed for the operators. Two separate presentations, even though it may entail more work, often results in both groups receiving the level of specificity that they need to be able to self-select and decide which version they want to attend.

Finally, I recommend that you have a fall back plan. Personally, if it isn’t clear who I am supposed to address, I default to focusing the class on the people in the room who are going to be closest to the danger. Even though this means that there will be decision-makers in the room who are going to hear a class designed for operators, I try to identify and pull those people aside following the introduction to explain to them why I have made that decision and to let them know what they can expect. While I always try to establish those expectations prior to beginning the talk, there is nothing wrong with adjusting expectations with simple conversation.

Understand that exceeding the expectations of everyone in the room is not an easy hurdle to clear and there are going to be some people who you just aren’t going to please. There are times when you are going to have to choose one segment of the audience over the other in the absence of clear guidance. So the question that I ask myself after asking the client/conference organizer what success looks like to them, is what does success look like to me? What am I hoping to accomplish with this talk?

The consequences of failing to establish audience expectations is a lesson that I have learned the hard way. There are times in the past where I succeeded in my presentation, exceeded expectations and delivered value, but did so through chance instead of through deliberate effort and precise decisions. Those particular presentations just happened to work out. There are other times when I failed as a presenter, but wasn’t able to understand what was different about this group from the last. What one audience expects is going to be different from presentation to presentation, but understanding what the members of the audience believe they have been promised and how to shape them makes each presentation stronger.

Photo Credit: Pixabay


Patrick Van Horne is the co-author of Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life. He is also the co-founder and CEO of The CP Journal and served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps. You can sign up for his weekly newsletter, The Weekly Profile, by clicking here.

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