No matter what situation you’re speaking in, the first (and probably most important) piece of advice I’ll always give you is to “know your audience.”
Your audience is giving you something precious - their time and attention. So as a speaker, it’s your responsibility to show respect for that by delivering a talk that’s relevant and valuable to them.
That said, “know your audience” is a phrase that’s mentioned frequently, without explaining what it means or how to achieve it. When I say know your audience, I mean put yourself into the shoes of the person who will be listening to your talk, speech, or presentation. Consider it from their angle and point of view and ask yourself:
Why should they listen to you?
Why should they give you their time?
Are you tailoring your words to them, their needs and the level they’re at?
You might be delivering the same message repeatedly to different groups of people, but the focus of your talk could (or should) be slightly different depending on your audience. Otherwise, you run the risk of not creating the connection you need for your words to register and resonate.
Let me give you an example.
Suppose you’re delivering a 10-minute talk on the benefits of exercise. What sort of things might you cover? - The range of benefits you get from exercising- The difference between exercising indoors and outdoors- How exercise can help you spend more time outside - The impact of exercise on your mental health and cognitive abilities There’s a whole list of possibilities there.
But let’s narrow it down a bit and imagine you’re giving that talk to a group of teenagers. Then your focus will change slightly because you’ll need to cover the specific benefits of exercise that will interest them.
You might talk about ways to fit exercise into a full schedule of school, extra-curricular activities and friends. Or mention how regular exercise can help improve your concentration for studying. You’re thinking about why they should be interested in listening to this particular talk.
For a group of 40-year-olds, you’ll speak about a slightly different set of exercise-related topics. And you’ll vary it again if you’re delivering the presentation to a group of senior citizens.
The fundamental message might stay the same, but your emphasis will shift, and the examples and stories you use to support your points will change to match.
Always keep in mind the question:
“Why should this person listen to me?”
Tailoring your talk or presentation specifically for those listening significantly increases the chances of holding your audience’s attention and getting your message across effectively.
So, what sort of things should you consider in your audience analysis? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
From the exercise-related example above, you can see how relevant this factor can be. As well as age, don’t forget to think about any gender-specific considerations or how your audience’s life experience and perspective might colour their views on the topic.
This has become even more important in the age of Zoom presentations and Teams talks. In many situations, your audience is no longer local but global, so you need to tailor your talk to address that.
There might be a language barrier, not just because members of your audience aren’t native speakers but perhaps because you’re using a lot of jargon or industry-specific phrases with the potential to cause confusion for your listeners.And it’s not just language you need to be careful about. Don’t forget to consider your non-verbal communication as well.
Think about what information your audience might already have on this topic. Then you can work out what they need to know and how you can bridge the gap between the two.
Be conscious of whether the group you’re presenting to may have particular concerns or objections to the topic for discussion, so you can address them appropriately if necessary.
Is the subject of your speech particularly technical or specialised? Maybe there are lots of figures and statistics involved, and those numbers have the potential to make the topic quite complex or hard to get your head around?
Too many stats or data-heavy subject matter means you run the risk of losing your audience’s attention. One strategy to tackle this is to use stories to illustrate your points rather than just stating straight facts. You can read more about this in my post on how to use business storytelling to make your message stick.
I once worked with a client who was delivering a talk at a conference with two distinct groups in the audience - a patient body group and a pharmaceutical industry group. Two diverse and distinct sectors of the same audience with very different needs, requirements, and concerns.
Your challenge with a split like this is how to structure your talk so that both segments of your audience feel you're speaking directly to them while still managing to deliver the core message of your presentation.In this case, we used a carefully crafted story to show how the product would benefit the patient and meet a need in the pharmaceutical sector. That way, both audience groups could identify with what was relevant to them.
These are factors not directly related to your speech or your audience but rather the circumstances of your delivery.
Let’s say you’re delivering a speech at a conference, and your slot is at four o'clock in the afternoon or just before lunchtime. These are potential danger zones for your audience to be distracted - they’re either thinking about what they’ll eat for lunch or getting ready to go home.
In that situation, your opening is extremely important. You don't want your audience mentally checking out within the first minute or two. So think about what might grab their attention and make them think, "This sounds interesting?"
Keep your speech succinct and to the point. Don’t continue any longer than you need to get your message across. You could add in some relevant stories to help capture your audience’s attention or illustrate your points with examples that resonate. There are lots of ways you can shape your talk to make sure you hold your listeners’ focus right to the end.
Taking the time to think about who’ll be listening to you speak and fully understanding what they need and want to hear from you can make the difference between a wildly successful speech or presentation and one that sinks without a trace.
Consider every point in your talk and ask yourself:
Does this address my audience’s needs?
Will they be able to relate to it?
Am I giving relevant examples, case studies and stories to back it up?
Doing this shifts your focus away from you and instead puts it on your audience and the value you’re delivering to them.
And when they see the effort you’ve made to get to know and understand them, it’s far more likely they’ll reward you with their attention.
If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking, “that all makes sense, but help! It seems so broad; where do I start?” Don’t worry. I’ve put together a guide to help you with exactly that.
It’s a complete checklist you can use to research your audience in advance, making it easy to shape your content and structure your talk to create the best possible connection with those listening to your speech.