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Understand your Audience

Sawubona: ‘See’ Your Audience

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According to the popular adage, “seeing is believing.” In other words, if you see something yourself, you will believe it to be real or true, even if the existence of that thing was unexpected. This idea that I have to see it to believe it stretches from ancient history to modern times.

In the Bible, Thomas would not believe that Jesus had risen until he saw him with his own eyes. When he did, Jesus said, “You believe me because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

More recently, in his 1997 Academy Award-winning performance in Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. would only keep Tom Cruise as his agent if Cruise promised that he would “Show me the money!”



When we see something, we tend to believe it. The visual evidence provides the confirmation. Even when we see a magician pull off an incredible trick that we know cannot possibly have happened, we are nonetheless amazed by what we have seen.

This is why props and demonstrations are so powerful. They make things concrete; they can have an emotional impact; they focus the audience’s attention and interest; they are memorable. In short, by allowing the audience to see something, you increase your chances of getting them to believe in your idea.

You can check out my earlier post for ideas on how to use props to help your next presentation.


Another kind of seeing

As important as the “seeing is believing” idea is to public speaking, there is another type of seeing that, in my view, is far more important. I am speaking of the way in which a speaker sees his or her audience.

One of the official languages of South Africa is Zulu (isiZulu in Zulu). It is spoken by about 10 million people. There is a word in Zulu: Sawubona. It means, “I see you.” Not in the sense of, “I see you standing before me, and I see that you are wearing blue jeans and sweater, and I see that your hair is done up today, and I see that you are wearing your glasses instead of contacts.” Sawubona is much more than that.

At its heart, sawubona means, “I see you. I see you here before me and I see where you came from. I see your hopes and your fears, your wants and your needs, your dreams and ambitions. I see you for who you are. I see you and I respect you.”

Youth worker and community leader Orland Bishop gives a more detailed explanation of sawubona in this short video.



I like how Bishop describes sawubona as an invitation to participate in each other’s life. Sawubona, he says, obligates people to give to each other what is needed for that moment of life to be enhanced.

When we speak to an audience, the members of that audience are giving us their most precious commodity; they are giving us their time. If you are speaking to 100 people for one hour, you are being given 100 hours of time that those people will never get back. That is an incredible responsibility and you owe it to your audience to make that time worth their while. You have to give them something in return.


It’s always about the audience

I don’t care how smart you are. I don’t care how hard you work. I don’t care about your product or your service. When you stand on stage, it is never about you or your company or your organization or your product or your service. Every speech, every presentation is about the audience. If you have any ambition to become a better speaker, you must understand this principle.

I have had the privilege of speaking to audiences in 20 countries on five continents. And as a result of those speaking engagements, I have learned an important lesson. Regardless of cultural or social background, audiences around the world can tell—very quickly—whether a speaker is really there for them, or whether the speaker is just going through the motions, giving the talk, checking the box, collecting the fee and moving on.

You have to be there for your audience. You have to approach every speaking situation thinking, “How can I help the audience? How can I give them something of value? How can I make this time, that they will never get back, worth their while?”

The good news is that when speakers have this mindset, all those things they want for themselves—recognition, a sale, a new client, a promotion, another speaking engagement—start to come on their own. I am speaking from personal experience.

And this is how sawubona can help.


Sawubona for speakers

As you prepare your speech or presentation, think about your audience and how the subject of your talk is relevant for them. What insights can you share? What wisdom can you impart? How can you make their lives a little bit easier?

Do some research. If you are going to speak to a group of individuals from the same company or organization, spend some time on their website. Google recent news to see if there have been any significant events lately that could be relevant for your talk.

When speaking to smaller groups, I use Survey Monkey to send the participants a short (5-minute maximum) survey to get a sense of who they are and what they are looking for from me.

For example, if I were conducting a multi-day presentation skills training for a group of people from a company, I might ask each participant for the following information:

  • Name and position at the company
  • What they consider to be their strengths as a speaker
  • Presentation skills that they would like to improve
  • Their expectations for the training

Having just this information alone is extremely useful in helping me think about how to approach the training.

If you are going to speak to a large audience, for example at a conference, contact the organizers and find out what you can about the participants. Ask for a list of those registered so that at the very least, you can see their positions and the companies for which they work. Look at the conference website and see what the other speakers will be talking about.

On the day of your talk, be in the room early. Make sure that you are familiar with the stage, the lighting and the sound system. Make friends with the tech person and be sure that any equipment that you need is working properly.

As well, and particularly when you are speaking to a large audience of people whom you do not know, try to speak with one or two of the early arrivals. Get to know them just a bit. They are there to listen to you so they will almost certainly be happy to speak to you. You will start building rapport with your audience even before you speak and you might learn something that you can work into your talk.

Finally, when you take the stage and look out at your audience, remind yourself that these are not nameless, faceless people who are just there to fill the seats. They are individuals with lives that are as rich and complicated as yours. They are people who want to be seen, who want to be understood, who want to be helped, who want to be respected.

As you look out at your audience, pause a moment and in your mind and in your heart say, “Sawubona. I see you.”

And if you carry that intention throughout your talk, your audience will look back at you with eyes that say, “Yebo sawubona. We see you too.”


If you liked this, you might also like

The Questions You Need to Ask to Really Know Your Audience

Your next presentation – it’s not all about you

The 4 Most Important Steps When Preparing Your Speech


John Zimmer
John Zimmer is an international speaker, trainer and lawyer. He has worked at a major Canadian law firm, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and is now a full-time speaker. A seven-time European Champion of speech contests, John writes an internationally recognized blog about public speaking, Manner of Speaking. He is also the co-creator of Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™.
John Zimmer
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