Article Category: Speaker Habits

How to Conduct Audience Analysis


The previous article in this audience analysis series defined what audience analysis is, and the types of questions that you should ask about your audience.

Unfortunately, finding the answers to these questions is not as easy as searching Google or browsing Wikipedia. Where can you find these answers?

In this article, we review nine strategies to conduct audience analysis which will lead you to the answers you seek.

Audience Analysis Example Activities

You have many options when conducting audience analysis. The primary activities are listed here, and expanded on in the sections below:

  1. Think about it.
  2. Interview the event organizer.
  3. Interview audience members.
  4. Survey your audience members.
  5. Poll people similar to your audience.
  6. Study past event archives.
  7. Review current event materials.
  8. Make observations at the event itself.
  9. Make observations during your presentation.
Audience Analysis Series

1. Think about it.

Find a quite space and analyze the audience on your own. Base your analysis on who you anticipate will attend your talk.

This step is the starting point for your audience analysis. Gaps in your knowledge about your audience will be exposed. These gaps should be the target for the remainder of your audience analysis activities.

2. Interview the event organizer.

For conferences or other events where you have been invited, your event organizer can be an incredible source of demographic, psychological, and contextual analysis.

The event organizer will usually be able to:

  • describe the audience demographics;
  • tell you about the level of knowledge in your audience;
  • warn you of any taboo topics or themes; and
  • explain the purpose of the event and how your presentation fits into it.

Arrange to meet in person, if possible, as this will likely reap the most information. If not, then a phone call or email can suffice.

Your event organizer can be an incredible source of demographic, psychological, and contextual analysis.

3. Interview audience members.

Your audience members aren’t (usually) as accessible as your event organizer. If possible, however, try to interview 2 or 3 people from your audience.

Individual audience members may not be able to provide the demographic details you seek, but they will obviously be a wonderful source of information about what the audience knows and what they do not know. Asking direct questions like “What do you hope to take away from this session?” will prove invaluable to you as you prepare.

4. Survey your audience members.

An informal survey could be as simple as emailing a number of the audience members (something to do in lieu of a direct interview).

A formal survey can be used to gather responses to both closed questions (e.g. yes/no; multiple choice) and open questions (“What do you think about…?”) Numerous easy-to-use websites can help you do this.

For example, I frequently use Google Drive (previously called Google Docs) to create pre-event audience surveys. I used the same tool to create the Six Minutes Readers’ Survey.

When surveying your audience members before your talk, remember:

  • Ask only focused questions relevant to your presentation; and
  • Keep the survey short. Your audience is busy; respect their time.

5. Poll people similar to your audience.

If you can’t communicate directly with audience members, you can sometimes infer quite a bit from other surveys and polls where the participants share key demographic characteristics with your audience members.

For example, suppose you are speaking to an audience of parents about parenting. (This is likely to be a very diverse group, but they all share the most important characteristic — being a parent!) Surveys conducted by parenting magazines may prove to be valuable. Or, you can poll parents other than those who will be attending your presentation.

6. Study past event archives.

If you are speaking at a recurring event, you may be able to learn quite a bit by studying archived event information (e.g. old event videos) or talking to past attendees or previous speakers.

For example, I’ve never been to a TED conference in my life. Having seen countless TED talks on video, however, I have a pretty good idea about the nature of the talks and the audience.

The time you invest in audience analysis will save you time later on preparing your speech, and make you more effective when you present.

7. Review current event materials.

If your event is being advertised, the marketing materials may provide clues as to what is important to your audience.

For example, suppose you are attending a conference which has chosen the theme “Innovation”. Your presentation will soar if you can incorporate this theme in a meaningful way.

8. Make observations at the event itself.

You can use the time before you speak to gather information on your audience. At this point, you can’t make large changes to your content, but you might be able to tweak a few key words or phrases to adapt to your audience.

9. Make observations during your presentation.

If your presentation is lengthy (e.g. an all-day seminar), then you may be able to analyze your audience early in the session, and then fine tune your material later in the session.

More likely, however, observations taken during your presentation will not allow you to substantially alter your content or delivery. But, they can help you for your next presentation!

For example, in courses that I teach, I frequently make notes about the specific questions and the types of questions that are asked.  These questions help me better understand where my audience has knowledge gaps, and where they would like to see more emphasis. I then use this knowledge to iteratively improve my courses for next time. (Note that I’m assuming my audience has a similar background from one course to the next.)

How much audience analysis is necessary?

It depends.

  • For an impromptu speech, your audience analysis might be simply observing your audience, making a few educated assumptions, and going for it.
  • For a very short speech like a class presentation or a routine presentation within your department, your audience analysis might consist of 15-30 minutes at the beginning of your speech preparation.
  • For a longer presentation or one where the stakes are quite high, your audience analysis may take several days or more and require assistance from others.

Like all speech preparation tasks, your audience analysis should scale according to the importance of the speech.

Don’t skimp on the time you devote to audience analysis. The time you invest in audience analysis will save you time later on preparing your speech, and make you more effective when you present.

Next in this Series…

In the next article of this series, we look at how to incorporate what you learn to improve your presentations.

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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. Kent says:

    Thanks for the tip. Basically, we need to understand audience age and background will do.

  2. Andrew — I am always in awe of you and your fabulous blogs. You always take such an in-depth approach and give us so much to “feed on.” Thank you for this excellent series on audience analysis. So much here! :)

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. I’m glad you find this article (and others) “nourishing.”

  3. Andrew,
    I couldn’t agree with you more that knowing your audience is the key to a successful presentation.
    You know what gets me? If you’re a paid speaker, you’re likely to get a lot of the event organiser’s time to make sure that you’re doing a good job. In my line, I’m much more likely to be grateful for the opportunity to pitch. From the outside, with little help, it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what level of material to use.
    Do you have any tips for (1) picking up that your material is not quite right and (2) finding a way to improve it off the cuff (your last bullet above)?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      [1] You can usually tell by observing and listening to the audience. If the audience is reacting badly (puzzled looks; inordinate frowning; not responding to your humor), it usually means you’ve made some wrong assumptions in your audience analysis. You should be able to see it on their faces. Also, listen to the questions they are asking. If the questions are focused on things which you have explained, or on prerequisite knowledge, you’ve overestimated their knowledge level.

      [2] Making changes within your presentation isn’t easy, but can be done in longer sessions. A few things you can do: take the time to fill in knowledge gaps (that you originally assumed the audience knew); ask the audience explicitly if there are any areas of confusion; asking the audience what they’d like you to cover; using terminology that the audience members are using in their questions…

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Audience analysis is one of my first steps.

    I gave up asking about taboos, though. It may be a personality quirk, but if an event organizer tells me not to mention something, I’m probably going to be hell bent on addressing it!

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