“How is it, Carl, that you seem to be able to customize your basic speaking presentations for every group to whom you speak?” This question came from someone who had just recently entered the world of professional speaking. I realize most of my readers have no desire to become professional speakers, but my response to the question might help anyone who wants to — or has to — speak in front of a group.

I talk with the meeting planner and other group leaders in advance. If everything is not covered via phone, I email questionnaires to be completed and returned, gathering information such as group demographics, the event’s major objectives, specific objectives they want me to accomplish, “stand-out” thoughts they want me to leave with the group, and the hottest topics and challenges the group and industry are currently experiencing.

Additionally, I ask about group strengths and weaknesses, two or three achievements they are most proud of, their unique positioning within their industry, the current condition of their entire industry, and who their primary competitors are. Such questioning leads to other questions, which opens up avenues that give me more insight into how I should develop and present the topic they want me to address.

This homework, which includes other outside research, helps me prepare somewhat of a structured presentation prior to the event. Always arriving early for the meeting, I greet and introduce myself to some attendees as they enter and sit in the room. Conversing briefly with several, I get some individual input on the organization and their work within the group, gathering material for my improvisation while speaking.

Information gained at the event, along with the prior information, allows me to improvise with such things as “John Woodruff made a good point when he and I were talking a few minutes ago” or “Julie Evans asked me a great question when we were talking earlier.” An important plus is that I’m not talking to an entire group of complete strangers when I step onto the platform.

Another plus is that speaking to as many individuals as time allows, I become aware of some who are definitely “on my side,” some who are waiting to disagree with me or see me fail, or who had rather be anywhere else besides in the meeting. I’m pretty good at reading people before the presentation and also during my presentation as I make eye contact with attendees and become aware of body language.

Through the years I’ve received comments regarding the abundant energy with which I speak. To some degree, I draw energy from the positivity of attendees. At the same time, I never allow any naysayers to sap energy from me. As I focus on the ones from which I draw energy, I still give attention to the ones who might not be as supportive, especially when I make a point that causes many attendees to nod in agreement.

One thing I emphasized when talking to the young speaker is that most people, especially business people, don’t want to hear from superstars who can’t be touched. They want to hear from ordinary humans who are very knowledgeable and experienced in what they do, ones who have taken the time to learn about the attendees and what they do.

Speakers should never pretend to be a know-it-all, because no one is. The people to whom you are speaking know much more about their endeavors than you do. What you are doing as a speaker is helping the attendees to apply your principles, examples and stories to what it is that they do so they can gain an insight that will help them do it better.

Carl Mays is a National Speakers Hall of Fame member and author of over a dozen books, including A Strategy For Winning (foreword by Coach Lou Holtz).