At the heart of any speech is the audience. While audience analysis does not guarantee against errors in judgment, it will help you make good choices in topic, language, style of presentation, and other aspects of your speech. The more you know about your audience, the better you can serve their interests and needs. Knowing how to gather and use information through audience analysis is an essential skill for successful speakers.
An Audience-Centered Approach
Many times we are so focused on ourselves that we forget to include our audience in our decision making during the speech preparation process. Since there is usually limited communication between the speaker and the audience, there is limited opportunity to go back to explain your meaning if there are misunderstandings. In order to prepare, it is important to know about the audience and adapt the message to the audience. You want to prepare your speech with a focus on the audience, not just you, the speaker, or your message. We call this approach audience-centered.
What is an Audience Analysis
Audience analysis involves gathering and interpreting information about the recipients of the speech. In audience-centered speaking, getting to know your target audience is one of the most important tasks that you face.
Why Conduct an Audience Analysis
Public speakers should turn their mental magnifying glass inward to examine the values, beliefs, attitudes, and biases that may influence their perception of others. The speaker should use this mental picture to look at the audience and view the world from the audience’s perspective. By looking at the audience, the speaker understands their reality.
When the speaker views the audience only through their mental perception, she is likely to engage in egocentrism. Egocentrism is characterized by the preoccupation with one’s own internal world. Egocentrics regard themselves and their own opinions or interests as being the most important or valid. Egocentric people are unable to fully understand or cope with other people’s opinions and a reality that is different from what they are ready to accept.
Finding Common Ground
You want to analyze your audience prior to your speech so you can create a link between you, the speaker and the audience during the speech. You want to be able to step inside the minds of the audience to understand the world from their perspective. Through this process, you can find common ground with the audience, which allows you to align your message with what the audience already knows or believes.
Types of Audience Analysis
Demographic information includes factors such as gender, age range, marital status, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Demographic information can provide information about the characteristics of people in your audience. This can help us to know what to avoid so as not to alienate our audience and what to do to engage with them on a deeper level.
Age: There are certain things you can learn about an audience based on age. Knowing that your audience is 18, 30, 55, or 70 is important to understand how to connect with them. Age groups tend to have different concerns, drives, and motivations based on generational identities. Different generations also tend to adopt different norms and slang.
Gender: Gender can define human experience. This area is open to misunderstanding as much as any other. Despite stereotypes, not all women have fifty pairs of shoes with stiletto heels in their closets, and not all men love football. Today, more people openly identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female. Even those of us who identify as strictly male or female do not fully follow traditional gender roles. In almost all cases you will be speaking to a “mixed” audience, and keeping this in mind will help you avoid ethnocentrism.
Culture: In past generations, Americans often used the metaphor of a “melting pot” to symbolize the assimilation of immigrants from various countries and cultures into a unified, harmonious “American people.” Today, we are aware of the limitations in that metaphor, and have largely replaced it with a multiculturalist view that describes the American fabric as a “patchwork” or a “mosaic.” People who immigrate do not abandon their cultures of origin in order to conform to a standard American identity. Additionally, subcultures and cocultures exist within and alongside larger cultural groups. Not all cultural membership is visibly obvious. Differences are what make each group interesting and are important sources of knowledge, perspectives, and creativity.
Religion: There is wide variability in religion as well. Even within a given denomination, a great deal of diversity can be found. The dimensions of diversity in the religious demographic are almost endless, and they are not limited by denomination. Yet, even with these multiple facets, religion is still a meaningful demographic lens. It can be an indicator of probable patterns in family relationships, family size, and moral attitudes.
Group membership: Audience members will identify with groups based on educational or career focus, extracurricular activities, and family status, just to name a few. Because public speaking audiences are very often members of one or more groups, group membership is a useful and often easy to access facet of audience analysis.
Education: People pursue education for many reasons. Some people seek to become educated, while others seek to earn professional credentials. Both are important motivations. The kind of education is also important. This means that not only the attained level of education but also the particular field is important in your understanding of your audience.
Occupation: People choose occupations for reasons of motivation and interest, but their occupations also influence their perceptions and their interests. There are many misconceptions about most occupations. Learning about those occupational realities is important in avoiding wrong assumptions and stereotypes.
Psychological Information – Attitudes, Beliefs, Values, and Knowledge
While demographic information is fairly straightforward and verifiable, information about audience values, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge is much less clear-cut. Two different people who both say they believe in equal educational opportunity may have very different interpretations of what “equal opportunity” means. People who say they don’t buy junk food may have very different standards for what specific kinds of foods are considered “junk food.”
Attitude: In basic terms, an attitude is a learned disposition to respond in a consistently favorable or unfavorable manner with respect to a person, an object, an idea, or an event. Attitudes come in different forms. You are very likely to see an attitude present itself when someone says that they are “pro” or “anti” something. But, above all else, attitudes are learned and not necessarily enduring. Attitudes can change, and sometimes do, whereas beliefs and values do not shift as easily.
Beliefs: Beliefs are principles or assumptions about the universe. They are more durable than attitudes because beliefs are hinged on ideals and not issues. For example, you may believe in the principle: “what goes around comes around.” If you do, you believe in the notion of karma.
Value: A value, on the other hand, is a guiding belief that regulates our attitudes. Values are the core principles driving our attitudes. If you probe into someone’s attitudes and beliefs far enough, you will inevitably find an underlying value. Importantly, you should also know that we structure our values in accordance with our own value hierarchy, or mental schema of values placed in order of their relative individual importance. Each of us has our own values that we subscribe to and a value hierarchy that we use to navigate the issues of the world. But we really aren’t even aware that we have a value hierarchy until some of our values come in direct conflict with each other.
Knowledge: What does your audience know about your topic? What don’t they know? Different audiences will have differing levels of existing knowledge about your topic.
Psychographic analysis can reveal preexisting notions that limit your audience’s frame of reference. By knowing about such notions ahead of time, you can address them in your speech. Audiences are likely to have two basic kinds of preexisting notions: those about the topic and those about the speaker. We will discuss these two ideas in later chapters.
This type of information focuses on characteristics related to the specific speaking situation. Understanding the audience size and the occasion can help you adjust your speech and delivery to one that is appropriate for the contextual norms.
Audience Size: How many people came to hear my speech and why are they here? What events, concerns, and needs motivated them to come? What is their interest level, and what else might be competing for their attention? In a typical public speaking class, your audience is likely to consist of smaller audiences. It isn’t too difficult to let each audience member feel as though you’re speaking to him or her. With larger audiences, it’s more difficult to reach out to each listener, and your speech will tend to be more formal and you will have to work harder to prepare visual and audio material that reaches the people sitting at the back of the room, including possibly using amplification.
Occasion: There are many occasions for speeches. Awards ceremonies, conventions and conferences, holidays, and other celebrations are some examples. There are also less joyful reasons for a speech, such as funerals, disasters, and the delivery of bad news. Matching your content and strategy to the occasion is essential for successful delivery.
Reason for attendance: A voluntary audience gathers because they want to hear the speech, attend the event, or participate in an event. A classroom audience, in contrast, is likely to be a captive audience. Captive audiences are required to be present or feel obligated to do so. Given the limited choices perceived, a captive audience might give only grudging attention making them more difficult to reach. Even when there’s an element of choice, the likely consequences of nonattendance will keep audience members from leaving. The audience’s relative perception of choice increases the importance of holding their interest.
How to use the Information
Prepare Content with Your Audience in Mind
The first thing a good audience analysis can do is help you focus your content for your specific audience. Understanding which jargon to use or avoid will help you connect with your audience members. Knowing which terms you need to define based on audience knowledge of the topic can help you to clarify your message. Using visuals and examples that will resonate with your audience members will maintain interest and keep them engaged.
Adjusting Speech Strategies
In addition to using audience analysis to help formulate speech content, we can also use our audience analysis to make adjustments to your speech strategies. If you’re speaking after lunch you may need to use strategies to liven up the tone of your speech. Or perhaps your situational analysis may reveal that you’ll be speaking in a large auditorium. In this case, you may need to account for a microphone or adjust your visuals for effective viewing.
This first chapter on audiences analysis is intended to overview what, why, and how we conduct an audience analysis. We will revisit this topic in more depth in chapter 5.
- Knowing your audience is key to public speaking success.
- Speakers can gather audience members’ demographics as well as information about opinions, attitudes, beliefs, values, and knowledge to engage them.
- Speakers can use information about the situation to determine speech strategies.
- An audience-centered speaker gathers information about their audience and uses it to adjust speaking content and strategies.
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