Article Category: Speaker Habits

Audience Analysis:
A Guide for Speakers


Self-centric speakers deliver the speech they want to give, without concern for who is in the target audience or what they may be thinking, feeling, or wanting.

Audience-centric speakers deliver the speech which the audience wants to hear, using words, concepts, stories, and visuals which will resonate with audience members and lead them to action.

But how do you know what the audience wants to hear? How do you know what will resonate with them? How do you know what they are thinking?

In this article, we define what audience analysis is, and look at the types of questions you should be asking about your audience.

What is Audience Analysis?

Audience analysis is the process of learning who your audience is, what they are thinking, and how you can best reach them.

Audience analysis is the process of learning who your audience is, what they are thinking, and how you can best reach them.

Thoughtful audience analysis is one of the best habits you can develop as a speaker. It will help you understand your audience’s perspective and provide maximum value for them. If done well, your audience analysis will provide insights that will help you focus your message, select the most effective content and visuals, and tailor your delivery to suit this particular target audience.

Audience Analysis Series

Audience analysis studies your audience along three primary dimensions:

  1. Demographic Analysis
    Who is in your audience? What are their individual and group characteristics?
  2. Psychological Analysis
    What does your audience know? What do they believe? What do they think about your topic?
  3. Contextual Analysis
    When and where are you presenting? Why is this audience listening to you?

Each of these three dimensions is examined in more detail in the following sections.

1. Demographic Audience Analysis

The aim of demographic audience analysis is to discover who you are speaking to.

Depending on your topic and message, some of the following questions will be relevant and some will not:

  • How old are they?
    A talk about investment options would be very different if you are speaking with teenagers versus a group nearing retirement.
  • Men? Women? Mixed?
    A talk about nutrition, fitness, or fashion may depend on the gender of your audience.  
  • Are audience members predominantly a certain race, culture, or ethnicity?
    This might impact your message, choice of language, gestures, and other aspects of your speech.
  • Do they share a common primary language with you?
    If not, you may have to be careful with slang, idioms, and other language shortcuts.
  • What is their profession?
    Imagine talking about a scientific discovery with an audience of engineers versus accountants.
  • What is their religion?
    A talk about moral issues may depend heavily on the religion of your audience members.
  • What is their educational level?
    Imagine the difference speaking to high school students versus lawyers.
  • Are they members of a relevant organization?
    Imagine talking about volunteerism with members of the Lions club versus non-members.
  • What is their personality type?
    Introverts and extroverts have different preferences that may impact your seminar approach.
  • Other qualities relevant to your speech?
    e.g. business leaders, marital status, cell-phone users, avid readers, marathon runners

All of the above analysis may be impacted by qualities of the audience as a whole:

  • Is the audience homogeneous or heterogeneous?
    It usually makes your life easier if your audience is fairly homogeneous in certain ways. For example, you can be far more technical if you are talking to a room full of engineers. Just be careful not to assume your audience members are identical — they are not.
  • What is the size of the audience?
    Larger audiences dictate many presentation differences compared to smaller audiences. In addition, larger audiences will tend to be more heterogeneous, and so you can draw fewer conclusions about them.

Finally, consider how you relate to the audience with respect to several of the characteristics above:

  • Are you similar to your audience, or are you different? (In gender, age, profession, education level, etc.)
    Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Other times, they will view you as an outsider, and that may influence your preparation.
  • Are they your peers?
    e.g. co-workers or classmates
  • Or are they your superiors or subordinates?
    Either could be good or bad…

2. Psychological Audience Analysis

Thoughtful audience analysis is one of the best habits you can develop as a speaker.

The aim of psychological audience analysis is to discover what your audience may be thinking before and during your presentation.

Psychological analysis covers both the knowledge (or lack of knowledge) and the beliefs of your audience.

Audience Knowledge

  • What do they know about your topic? What don’t they know?
    These are critical questions to determine the “level” at which you target your presentation.
  • What do they want to know? What do they need to know?
    It’s critical that you satisfy their expectations. Otherwise, your presentation will be seen as a failure for them.
  • What specialized terminology are they familiar with?
    Using acronyms and technical terms is okay in a presentation, but only if your audience recognizes them (or you take the time to define them).
  • What concepts, processes, or tools are they familiar with?
    Like terminology, you can draw upon these concepts, processes, and tools as you build your presentation. Consider them building blocks that are already in place before you begin.

It is also sometimes useful to gauge their knowledge compared to yours:

  • Do some members of your audience know more about the topic than you?
    This is a tricky situation to navigate.

Audience Beliefs

  • Are they neutral, or are they predisposed to agree with or oppose your message?
    Audiences of the three different types require three totally different presentations.
  • What are the most important values to the audience? (Or, what are the values of their organization?)
    It’s important to know what they value as these are often the best starting points upon which you can build your arguments.
  • What problems do they have?
    If your presentation aims to offer them a solution, it surely helps if they agree with you that the problem exists in the first place!

3. Contextual Audience Analysis

If done well, your audience analysis will provide insights that will help you focus your message, select the most effective content and visuals, and tailor your delivery to suit this particular target audience.

The aim of contextual audience analysis is to discover how the speaking event itself may influence your audience’s state of mind.

In some ways, this analysis takes who they are (demographic) and what they believe (psychological), and pins it to a certain time and place where you’ll be speaking.

Consider the following questions:

  • Is their attendance voluntary or mandatory?
    In most cases, audience members who are attending voluntarily are much more open-minded, more enthusiastic, and more motivated to hear what you have to say. On the other hand, mandatory attendees may require extra effort on your part to motivate.
  • What has the audience been going through in the days or weeks prior to your speech?
    Have their been layoffs at the company? Has everyone been dealing with the impact of a storm?
  • What style of presentation does the audience expect?
    If your speech is part of a larger event, your audience may have certain expectations that your presentation will be similar to the others. Sometimes it is best to conform; other times it is best to stand out. Your audience analysis lets you make a deliberate decision either way.
  • What are people wearing?
    Not only will this dictate how you may want to dress, but it may also guide you in the level of formality you should maintain.
  • What time of day are you speaking?
    Before/during/after a meal? Early/late in the day? Timing will influence your audience’s state of mind.
  • What obstacles or distractions exist in the room that may impact your audience?

Remember that you are speaking to individuals

In rare circumstances, you are able to meet privately with each audience member before your presentation and learn about them and their expectations. However, this is rarely practical. So, you are usually required to infer a great deal from your audience analysis instead.

However, you don’t talk to amorphous blobs known as audiences. You talk to individual people, and no two people in your audience are identical. While the individuals in your audience may be similar in many ways, there will always be a range of characteristics: a range of knowledge levels, a range of beliefs, a range of expectations, etc. Even the best audience analysis will have a degree of uncertainty.

Next in this Series…

In subsequent articles in this series, we look at how to conduct audience analysis and how to incorporate what you learn to improve your presentations.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon2 Comments

  1. Eugenia says:

    Excellent article, Andrew, and particularly timely for me. I’m writing an article about the elevator pitch. One of my points was researching the audience, but as I began to cover the points in your article, giving examples, my article was getting too long. Now, all I have to do is to write one paragraph on this point and then refer them to your article, if you don’t mind.

    Thanks for your comprehensive treatment of the topic.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Eugenia. I’m glad to hear that this article provides value for you.

      And yes, please feel free to link to this article or any other on Six Minutes.

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Presenting Away @presentingaway — Nov 30th, 2012

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Cheryl Stephens @cherylstephens — Jan 18th, 2013

Good, 3-part series on audience analysis for speakers–start here http://t.co/LGmLqKAB

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