10 Things You Should Know About Your Audience Before You Give a Speech

Updated on March 1, 2018
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Sally Hayes is an avid member of Toastmasters, a renowned educational club for people who want to develop their public speaking skills.

There's no doubt that being an effective speaker requires you to know the subject you are talking about inside out. But a wealth of topical knowledge is only one facet of pulling off an exceptional presentation. You also need to take time to research your audience and find out what motivates them, how they identify themselves to others, and what they feel strongly about. Here are 10 vital things you should know about your audience before you write and deliver your speech.

1. Age Range

The array of issues that worry a group of seniors is going to be different than a group of high school students. Make sure that the topic of your speech is relevant to the life stage most represented by your audience.

That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in another.

— Adlai E. Stevenson

2. Gender

Depending on the organization or special occasion, your audience may be made up primarily of one gender. Choose language that is suitable and appropriate for audience without being patronizing. Pay attention to the pronouns you use, the anecdotes you tell and the issues you focus on. And no matter what, always avoid sexist, derogatory jokes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

3. Educational background

Your word choice, level of formality, use of humor, and presentation style including the use of visuals and handouts should be shaped by the audience’s educational background. If you're worried that you might sound like you are talking down to your audience, aim for a speech level (vocabulary, syntax, pace) that is just a notch higher than that of your audience. By doing so, you’ll neither bore your audience with overly simplistic phrases nor talk over their heads with complex technical jargon.

4. Jobs and Careers

If your audience is made up of people sharing a specific occupation, tailor your presentation to include stories and anecdotes that are relevant to people's career concerns.

3. Social and/or Economic Status

An audience full of people who represent the working middle class is going to have a different set of interests and needs from wealthier, more affluent audiences. If you are trying to get your participants to buy a product or service from you, you'll want to make sure that what you are offering is affordable and well priced.

Wanting to know the average education level of your audience before you give your speech doesn’t make you a snob; it makes you an empathetic, approachable and engaging speaker.
Wanting to know the average education level of your audience before you give your speech doesn’t make you a snob; it makes you an empathetic, approachable and engaging speaker.

6. Political Orientation

Even is your speech topic is non-partisan, that is, it doesn't lean in one political direction or the other, as a speaker, it would be wise for you to have a sense of the political climate in the room. Some groups may be more open to examining social issues from another person's perspective while other groups may see their identity as being firmly rooted in their political beliefs. Knowing how vocal your audience might be on an issue, especially if you have a mix of political beliefs in the room, will help you plan for any 'lively' dialogue that might erupt between audience members.

Is your audience comprised change-makers who can be inspired to take action based on your message?
Is your audience comprised change-makers who can be inspired to take action based on your message?

7. Recreational and Leisure Activities

An audience that's interested in intellectual pursuits such a chess and arts and culture might not be interested in jokes and anecdotes about famous baseball players or reality show celebrities.

8. Important News and Events, Good or Bad (Such as a Recent Tragedy or Loss)

Don’t be that speaker who walks into a meeting or presentation and makes an insensitive comment that touches a raw nerve for your audience. Make an effort to stay up-to-date on important news that could be weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of the people you are addressing. If appropriate, acknowledge any difficult circumstances before you begin your speech to let people know that you care.

9. Geography

Be careful not to assume that all big cities in one area are the same. Do your homework and learn a little bit about the place you're visiting. Does the city have a sports team their proud of? Is there a well-known landmark in town with significant historical meaning to the locals? Where do people like to hang out? Do people have an endearing nickname for folks from that region? The more you can find out about the place you're visiting and what makes it special to the people who live there, the easier it will be to establish rapport and win your audience over.

10. Group dynamics

How well does the audience know each other? Are they a group of strangers who bought tickets to your event separately, or are they part of a close-knit group? This could be important when choosing ice-breakers and warm-up activities. For example, an ice-breaker activity focused on getting people to know a little bit about each other would be good for groups of strangers, while an energizing warm-up activity would be good for groups of people who already know one another quite well.

Learn More About Your Audience By:

  • Contacting the event chair or MC. The person who invited you to speak is an important resource as you prepare your speech. After all, that individual had a specific goal in mind when she chose you to address her group. Make sure that her goals for the event are aligned with what you can deliver.
  • Checking out the company website. This will be particularly useful if you want to know about the audience's profession. Look for notable achievements, the company's mission and vision and any other clues you can find about the groups' workplace culture.
  • Visiting a tourist bureau. This will help you understand local geography and appreciate the denizen's unique customs and culture.
  • Reading the audience's hometown newspaper online. Being up to date on current affairs will help you connect with your audience.
  • Sending out a survey. Include a few fun questions to get to know your audience and ask people to send them back to you by a certain deadline. Put the name of everyone who completes the survey into a door prize draw at the beginning of the event
  • Arriving early. Show up to the special event early and mingle with the crowd before you go give your speech. This is one of the best, and most enjoyable ways, to get to know your audience!

Source material:

Know Your Audience, The Better Speaker Series, Toastmasters International

© 2018 Sally Hayes

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