As you are preparing for a presentation, remember that even with audiences that you feel intimidated to present to, stay focused on the most important thing: engaging with your audience.

When it comes to delivering engaging presentations, focus on connecting with your audience. This is one of the main pieces of advice I give my coaching clients and readers. Research who you will be speaking to and tailor your presentation style to best suit the audience.

But what happens when preparation isn’t enough? Or when the audience you are presenting to is very different from what you are used to?

Recently, I was asked by a police department to deliver a presentation on diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias. I was nervous about how to approach these topics with the officers, so I decided to meet with some members of the department to get a sense of how to best connect with them. The leaders I spoke to shared discouraging sentiments: “Don’t expect engagement, and don’t expect us to talk. We’re used to receiving information and accepting it as is.”

Uh oh! I thought to myself. This is not my presentation style at all. To top it off, one of the head officers added, “Police officers definitely like it when the people who present to them come from a similar background.” How on Earth would I connect with them?

I had my work cut out for me.  

It was the day before the presentation, and I had been racking my brain for weeks on how to do this justice. My usual target audience has included corporate professionals and non-profit employees, and business owners, but this was my first time presenting to police officers. I scoured the Internet for tips to examine how others have presented to them in the past. Article after article stated that the best way to connect to the police was to avoid bringing in an outsider, to select someone who actually has experience working with police officers. These pieces also stressed that police officers like facts and want directness.

I arrived to the station early in the morning to set up ahead of time. The best thing I could do to make this go as smoothly as possible was to alleviate my nerves, but they were on fire. I waited at the head of a presentation room, watching the minutes on the clock tick slowly. Promptly at 9 AM, the back door of the classroom swung open, and the first of what would be an orderly mob of burly, masculine, uniformed men walked in and took their seats, not leaving any chairs empty between them. It’s one thing to see one or two police officers working, but to see a whole room filled with them (78 to be exact) made me feel out of place. I was so uncomfortable! I thought, You have three hours. How are you going to possibly connect to them, Dima? I knew I needed to try something different to assuage the anxiety. As I looked again over the sea of buzz-cuts and navy-blue, I caught myself laughing at the situation telling myself, What was their HR team thinking by hiring a Jordanian American woman with an accent to deliver such presentation to the police? I laughed, and suddenly the situation became an inside joke with myself.

I started walking around and greeting the officers.  I told them that I was going to be their instructor for the day. I felt more comfortable as I introduced myself, and once I started the presentation, I shared relatable stories and gave the officers space to discuss and share their opinions, fears, and frustrations with no judgment or stereotypes from my side. I presented from the heart.

To my astonishment, they were vocal, sharing their experiences and asking questions! They were all involved, and they all wanted to be heard. They turned out to be the opposite of everything I was warned about ahead of time. I so much enjoyed presenting to them, because I focused on engaging them in my presentation.

I felt a surge of relief and pride that day. We need to connect with our audience, and we need to be authentic. If I was firm, rigid, and focused solely on facts, facts, facts, just like I was advised, I don’t believe the officers would have gained as much as they did from my training. When I remembered that they are human, and I too am human and that there was a little bit of humor to be had in this situation, I loosened up; I opened up, and they opened up in return.

As you are preparing for a presentation, remember that even with audiences that you feel intimidated to present to, stay focused on the most important thing: engaging with your audience. Even if you are given advice that does not align with your normal presentation style, follow through with your professional instincts and take advantage of your personal skill set. This is is what makes a presentation a memorable and worthwhile experience for all.