A Cautionary Story to Speakers: Know Your Audience

Every so often I get invited to a salon. For those not acquainted with the term, it refers to a discussion group in someone’s home. (Let’s face it, what would I need with the other kind?!)

I enjoy it. There are usually 10 people, five regulars and five special invitees of which I have been in the latter category. Someone takes the lead and facilitates the discussion. Each meeting is devoted to a single topic. I’ve led discussions on gun control and “same sex marriage.” A vote follows healthy debate and discussion. The only condition is that everyone respects everyone else’s right to their opinion. And the rule is, “What is said at the salon stays at the salon,” or, if you prefer movies over commercials, “Never ask me about my salon!” In any event, the facilitator begins by expressing his or her opinion and then “proving” it. Their “proof” is what is discussed or debated.

So, for example (and not for an on-line debate in which I will not participate), when it came to “same sex marriage,” I said it was a legal fallacy created because of a societal need, akin to declaring someone who has been missing for at least seven years “legally dead.” So two men or two women who “marry” are “legally married” but not really married, just as a man or woman who is declared “legally dead” may not really be dead but may in fact be very much alive. (That one I won; we tied on gun control.)

The last salon I was invited to dealt with the environment. We had a guest speaker. As you can imagine, when she arrived we were all introduced. Before we sat down at the dining room table where we always meet, we were having coffee (well, they were, I never touch the stuff) and the speaker asked, “Is there anyone here whose business in 100% sustainable?”

Me being me, I naturally said, “Mine is. Everyone of the candidates who I submit to my executive recruiting clients and everyone of my career counseling clients, without exception, is 100% biodegradable.” I thought it was funny. Everyone else thought it was funny, except for the speaker. She could not hide her contempt. The woman just had no sense of humor. (It’s very awkward when there are 11 people in a room, ten of whom are laughing and one is stone-faced.)

One of the regulars tried (and failed) to ease the tension. We took our seats and, as the facilitator, the woman made her case. Problem was, she did not realize that every person around the table researches the topic and comes prepared, not just with opinion, but with facts. The facilitator has to defend their position which, and this is what makes it interesting, no one knows in advance.

Needless to say, she was unsuccessful in making her case, arguing instead of debating. As she was a guest who, in addition to lacking a sense of humor also could not tolerate anyone disagreeing with her, at the end we did not have a vote to decide the issue. No one has ever been embarrassed at the salon; I doubt anyone ever will be.

When she left our host apologized. She said she had made a mistake in not better vetting the speaker. We assured her she had nothing about which to apologize but then we got into an interesting discussion when one of the regulars asked the host what the speaker had asked about us. “Nothing,” was her reply.

We all knowingly looked at each other. Everyone in the room does public speaking. We shared how we get to know our audiences. We all have different methods. But we all do it so that we can make our presentations meaningful.

Bottom line: If you do not know to whom you are speaking you will achieve nothing, be it job offer, sale, or debate victory.


Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).

In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.

An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.