Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Improve Your Speeches Through Audience Analysis


The first two articles in this audience analysis series have defined what audience analysis is (what questions to ask) and given strategies for how to conduct audience analysis (how to get those answers).

This begs the question — how do you capitalize on your audience analysis? That is, how do you reap the benefits to offset the time that you invested?

In this article, we examine how to improve your presentation based on your audience analysis.

8 Ways to Use Audience Analysis to Improve Any Presentation

We start by examining eight actions you can take to improve just about any presentation:

Audience Analysis Series
  1. Dress like your audience, or maybe one notch above.
  2. Choose a presentation format appropriate to your audience and the event.
  3. Select the supporting points which will have greatest impact on this audience.
  4. Use words which match your audience’s vocabulary.
  5. Draw upon sources which your audience recognizes for statistics, quotations, examples, or other evidence.
  6. Choose stories which will resonate with your audience.
  7. Design visuals that impact your audience.
  8. Customize your call-to-action for this audience.

1. Dress like your audience, or maybe one notch above.

This is usually an easy way to boost your ethos as your audience will like you more if you “fit in” with them. Dressing significantly better or significantly worse than your audience makes you appear like an outsider.

For other clothing tips, see How to Dress for Public Speaking.

2. Choose a presentation format appropriate to your audience and the event.

Sometimes slides are necessary; sometimes not. Sometimes you need a lengthy Q&A; sometimes not. Some audiences expect a traditional lecture style; some expect the opposite. Whatever you choose, you should be guided by the needs and expectations of your audience; don’t merely choose the format you are accustomed to delivering.

Note that this doesn’t mean you must always conform to audience expectations. In rare circumstances, you might deliberately shock the audience with a style that goes against what they expect. It’s risky, but in the right setting, it may pay off.

3. Select the supporting points which will have greatest impact on this audience.

While preparing, you will usually have a large number of potential supporting points, but you can’t present them all within your time constraints. When choosing which to keep and which to cut, consider those which this audience will find most persuasive.

Will this audience be persuaded more by a financial argument or an environmental one? Do they value simplicity more than convenience? Do they value security more than freedom?

4. Use words which match your audience’s vocabulary.

This applies both to your spoken words as well as words which appear on your visuals.

Don’t say “dollars” when you should be saying “euros.” Don’t use acronyms or technical jargon that your audience won’t understand. Similarly, don’t be sloppy with terms where your audience expects high precision. Do your homework!

5. Draw upon sources which your audience recognizes for statistics, quotations, examples, or other evidence.

To maximize the impact of quotations, examples, and other supporting material, draw from sources that your audience knows and (hopefully) respects.

For example, quote Bill Gates when speaking to entrepreneurs or CEOs. Quote Justin Bieber when talking to teen-aged girls.

6. Choose stories which will resonate with your audience.

Stories offer tremendous benefits in your presentations, but you’ll lose much of the impact if your audience doesn’t identify with the hero in some way.

For example, when speaking to community organizers, tell stories where a community organizer is the hero. When speaking to a school auditorium of parents, feature parenting heroes instead.

7. Design visuals that impact your audience.

If you want to trigger emotions, don’t necessarily select the images that you find most impressive; select those which impact your audience most.

If you are using charts or diagrams, choose those which will answer the questions your audience members have.

If your slides carry a theme throughout (e.g. Star Trek), make sure it is appropriate for your audience.

8. Customize your call-to-action for this audience.

To maximize the likelihood that your audience takes action, make sure your call-to-action is tailored for them given their strengths and resources.

Suppose you are speaking on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that provides affordable housing. If your audience is a group of wealthy CEOs, then the call-to-action might be asking for monetary donations or to get their employees engaged. If your audience is a group of service club members, however, your call-to-action might be to invite hands-on participation on a new home.

How to Handle Special Audiences

The guidelines above apply to just about every presentation, regardless of any particular audience characteristic.

Sometimes, though, your audience analysis will uncover a specific fact that will impact your choices. Consider the following special audiences:

  • Mandatory attendance
    Overall, it’s much easier speaking to people who choose to attend, because their attendance demonstrates their motivation. So, when speaking to an audience where participation is mandatory, you’ll need to convince them that there is value for them.
  • Hostile audience
    When your audience is predisposed to oppose your message, you’ll need to practice logical jujitsu to show them how their beliefs really do support your objectives. You are probably doomed if you fail to recognize this in your analysis.
  • Fatigued audience
    When you are speaking late in the afternoon (or evening), or even just before lunch after a tiring morning, it is tough to keep your audience’s attention. Keep it short. Keep it upbeat and high-energy.
  • Conference audience
    Whenever you are speaking at a larger event, do your homework on how your presentation fits with the material from other speakers. The more you can draw connections for the audience, the more valuable you’ll be.

What to do with a heterogeneous audience?

We’ve assumed so far that you have a homogeneous audience, with a single audience persona (i.e. everyone attending has similar background, knowledge level, key demographic characteristics, etc.). This keeps it simple, but is rarely realistic.

Often, your audience will be mixed in some critical aspect. For example:

  • You are presenting to potential customers. The audience is split between senior management (managers, accountants, legal) and the technical team. These groups have very different backgrounds, different issues of concern, and different vocabularies.
  • You are presenting at a civic government meeting on a controversial issue. The audience is comprised of people from the following groups: pro-business; environmentalists; pro-family; etc.
  • You are speaking at the parent-teacher association meeting for your child’s school. The audience includes parents, teachers, and school board members.

So, what do you do when your audience is a mix of two or more distinct sub-groups?

There are three basic strategies:

  1. Speak to only one sub-group of the audience and ignore the others. This is a risky strategy, but may be appropriate if, for example, the decision rests with a single person or a small group of people. It may make sense to focus your presentation on the decision-maker(s).
  2. Address each of your audience sub-groups with different parts of your presentation. Part of your presentation might be aimed at sub-group A, while the next part may address the concerns of sub-group B, and then sub-group C, and so on. This is a strategy employed often by politicians.
  3. Ignore the differences between audience members, and instead focus on common appeals. Although important differences exist between the sub-groups, you might choose to ignore these differences to avoid getting tangled up in opposing arguments. Your presentation can “stay above the fray” and focus instead on values, principles, and issues where there is common ground.

Depending on your situation, any of these strategies may be optimal for you.

Next in this Series…

In the next article, we’ll share a useful worksheet that can help you turn audience analysis into a positive, focused speaking habit.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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