Here's a scenario that might feel familiar. You have a big presentation to make to a group of key stakeholders. You create an awesome presentation with good content and good slides. You know your stuff really well.

You get into the room and start your presentation. You don't get off the first slide. You are peppered with questions, some feeling like they are coming from left field. You are derailed and in reaction mode for the rest of the presentation.

You wonder what just happened in there. Had you not practiced and prepared well? Maybe, but let's assume that you did. It may come down to one of the biggest culprits in derailing even really good presentations:

You didn't know your audience as well as you needed to.

If this has happened to you, the good news is that you aren't alone, or I wouldn't be writing about it. It's happened to all of us. Even if you have the best content in the world and are the best public speaker in your department, if you don't know your audience, you might get off the first slide but still won't end up influencing the way you want to.

Here are five key things I always prepare for when it comes to each member of the audience I'm presenting to:

1. What is the person's current role?

This may sound obvious as something to consider, and most of us at least know this. But it is about taking it a step further and understanding what is important to him or her based on the role he or she sits in.

2. What are previous roles this person has had? Past experiences?

I have a client to whom I present often. He is currently the CEO and has been with the company for a good amount of time. Most of that time, however, was spent as the chief financial officer. Even though he isn't in that role anymore, I prepare for presenting to him with that in mind. Of course, as the CEO, financial performance is key, but a CEO who used to be a CFO requires being extra prepared for financially driven questions.

3. What are this person's hot points?

This is about understanding his or her deal breakers, pet peeves, or just things that always set him or her off. Many of us don't spend enough time thinking about this, and walk into land mines we could have avoided.

4. What are this person's pressure points?

Earlier in my career when I worked for one of the big global consulting firms, we seemed to always start our client interview questions with the familiar, "What keeps you up at night?" It gave us some good information but wasn't really getting at true pressure points.

What you are really trying to understand here is what pressure the person you are presenting to is feeling -- often from whomever it is that he or she reports to. It is also about what pressure this person is feeling about public goals he or she has committed to.

Understanding these things helps you think about how your presentation -- and whatever outcome you are trying to influence through your presentation -- aligns with and supports or gets in the way of these pressure points. I've seen many a presentation go south because of simply not understanding pressure points.

5. What is this person's communication style and preferences?

First, you need to understand the language the person speaks. Given his or her background and roles, do you speak to this person in "IT," "Finance," "Engineering," or something else? You can have the best presentation in the world, but if you speak in the language you are comfortable in versus the language of your audience, you'll lose the ability to influence them.

In addition to speaking his or her language, it is important to understand how he or she communicates:

  • There's the "Be brief, be brilliant, be gone" crowd. You've probably presented to people like this before. They want it short and outcome-focused right from the start. Then they want you to leave for the next person.
  • Some audience members want enthusiasm and passion for your subject. They want you to be motivational and inspiring.
  • Some want consideration for people and teams, and a steady pace.
  • And some want you to show them rigor, attention to detail, and strong methodologies.

Knowing these communication preferences helps you tailor your content in a way that will resonate and influence.

When I take the time to think about each of these things, my presentations almost always go smoothly. When I get lazy and don't take the time, I usually wish I had.