Audience analysis: A complete guide for the public speaker
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Audience analysis: A comprehensive guide for the public speaker

The issue with so many public speakers is that they don’t prepare their speech in a listener-focussed manner, so they’re not aware of the needs, expectations, prior knowledge of the listeners, etc. This, in turn, results in the speaker communicating with the audience either at a very basic level or, vice versa, at a very complex and incomprehensible level. Even worse, the speaker talks about something the listeners aren’t interested in. That’s why today I’m going to tell you how audience analysis makes you a better speaker.

So, what is audience analysis? Audience analysis gives you the opportunity to get as much information about the background of your listeners as possible. Using this information, you can prepare your message so that it builds on the interests, needs, and expectations of your listeners.

Here are some great tips i would like to share with you today.

Table of Contents

Mapping of listeners (demographic information)

“What you want is the opportunity to work and an audience. Prizes after that are just a great big bonus.” -Kenneth Branagh

The number of listeners

This will tell you which venue you need. If you need to make copies of your materials, you’ll know how many copies you need. In addition, one reason for the fear of public speaking is „There are so many of them!“ If you also have the same problem, you’ll know how to deal with it.

How old are they?

Audience analysis: A comprehensive guide for the public speaker

With age comes experience. It’s only 10 years between the ages of 20 and 30, but 10 years mark an ocean of experiences. This, in turn, means that a 30-something listener perceives your story through their experience and knowledge much more than a younger one.

Some things you talk about from your experience may have nothing to do with the younger people.

For example, audio cassettes were relatively common in the mid-2000s. When I show an audio cassette and a pencil to my 20-year-old listeners and ask, „What do these two things have in common?“, about 90% of the time, I get no answer. Ca. 75% of the time, young people don’t even know what an audio cassette really does.

Say, you’re talking about a very complicated technical issue, but your listeners are mostly older people. In this case, you should think twice about how – and using what examples – to clearly explain the topic to your listeners.

How many men and women?

Let’s be honest: men and women sometimes understand the same things in a completely different way. There are also topics that target women (e.g., healthy eating) or men more (e.g., football).

Regardless of the topic, during your audience analysis it would be wise to think about which examples you can use for women and men to understand it clearly.

The listeners’ cultural background

In the 1950s, US Vice President Richard Nixon visited Brazil on a state visit, welcoming the crowd with his hand held in the A-O.K position. For the locals, this sign means „screw you“. You can imagine how stunned the Brazilians were!

The issue of cultural background can be compared to walking on thin ice, which sometimes cracks unexpectedly, leaving you unaware of what really happened. Therefore, you should consider the background of your listeners.

Listeners’ general background

Speech preparation

Do participants know each other?

People who know each other tend to ask more questions and be more active. If your analysis reveals that the listeners don’t know each other, you have to accumulate more energy to engage your listeners.

However, as novice public speakers mostly fear questions, they pray for their listeners to be complete strangers.

NB! My own experience shows that friends are the worst listeners. Even more so, if they’ve had a drink or two. They will do everything a regular listener never does (make stupid jokes and remarks, interrupt, etc.).

What are the listeners’ values or beliefs?

If you find out that your audience’s main value is 1. money 2. more money 3. even more money, but your presentation topic is „Sun, homeland, and meadows“, be ready that you won’t get far using the standard approach.

What background do the listeners have?

Are there any professionals? Experts? Are there top executives or officials? Which area representatives can you meet? It may be that you find out a lot of similar information about the background of your listeners, which will allow you to prepare more thoroughly.

How do they get along with each other?

It may happen that the audience is divided into several rivalling groups (e.g., different departments of one company). Or their relationship is rotten. It’s reasonable to carry out this analysis to find out whether and how it could disrupt your presentation. It’s quite annoying if a couple of listeners start arguing during your presentation.

Listeners’ mindset

Analysing the audience, it’s important to find out if you’ve had any previous contact (either direct or indirect) with someone in the audience, and find out how it can affect your message. Keep in mind that you may not know anything about your listeners, but they might have heard about you, which shaped a certain opinion.

The listeners’ mindset in relation to you

Story: When I was a student, a famous politician attended our class. He knew precisely that our attitude towards him was negative. Therefore, he started his presentation by cheerfully giving out candy and chatting about sweet nothings in the introduction for the sake of a friendly environment.

Of course, this is a cheap trick, but by the time he was giving out candy, our brains went like, „I don’t know anything about him but what the media syas. What I can see right now is totally different from what was written in the media!“

In other words, this politician knew exactly that our attitude towards him was negative, and he tried to change it right from the start. When audience analysis reveals that for some reason the listeners are negatively minded about you, the hostile atmosphere shouldn’t surprise you. Perhaps you should better do something to improve it.

An important note: if the listeners don’t know anything about you, their attitude is usually neutral or rather positive. Why positive? Because they expect you to make a good presentation and the better you do, the better they will do. The listeners generally don’t want you to fail, and knowing this should make it much easier for you to start your presentation.

The listeners’ mindset in relation to the topic

It may happen that the listeners’ mindset in relation to you is positive, but as the attitude towards the topic is negative, the air is tense. For example, you are the executive manager of a company, respected by all the employees. This means that their attitude towards you is positive.

Today, however, you’re making a presentation on the following topic: „Good friends! Unfortunately, the company is facing difficult times. We are forced to make every third employee redundant and cut the salary of the rest by 20%.“

How enthusiastic could they be about your message? If you know that the subject is unpleasant, you should prepare your explanations beforehand.

The listeners’ mindset  in relation to the organisation you represent

It can also be that the attitude towards you or the topic is not relevant as the organisation you represent is the crucial background. For example, if I have to talk about search engine optimization (SEO) and come from Google’s headquarters, the mere fact that I work for Google gives my story more credibility.

But maybe I’m an unknown politician representing a party with a negative reputation? If the listeners’ attitude towards this particular party is negative, it will also affect how your message is received.

Are there any smarty pants in the group?

Are there any smarty pants in the group?

Do you remember that a smarty pants is a listener who is convinced that there’s only one person in the room who knows the subject… and that’s not you! Therefore, they’ll smirk and argue and interrupt. What is worse, they have no idea they’re doing something wrong. Smarty pants never get the entire message, but focus on individual parts.

They usually interrupt your speech saying something like, „What you’re saying is all nice and heart-moving, but I think that…” Their questions are not concise or specific, but right the opposite: when they make a point, it appears to be a speech.

Never wrestle with pigs

If your audience analysis reveals that there will be smarty pants, you will be mentally prepared for it. Remember a Swedish proverb that says, „Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty but the pig is the only one who likes it.”

From the point of view of public speaking, this means that no matter how your discussion with the smarty pants ends, you lose anyway.

Are there leaders in the group?

A leader may be a legitimate leader (e.g., executive officer, department manager, etc.), but also be an opinion leader of this particular audience. If you find out during your presentation that the group’s leader is the smarty pants, be ready to stand for yourself.

If the group’s leader supports you, the general environment in the room will be much warmer. For example, the leader may tell an amusing story about how they screwed up once in relation to the topic. If they make a joke about themselves, it is more likely that the listeners will laugh.

Are the listeners attending voluntarily?

There are two types of volunteers: a true volunteer and a volunteer that has to attend or “something else happens”. I usually come across the latter type when doing public speaking training for businesses. The organiser will always tell me that „all volunteered”, and I find out on the spot that the boss told them to do so.

From the point of view of public speaking, the problem is that if the listeners are attending by command, even if the topic is interesting, their attitude may not be particularly inviting. The only way to mitigate their mood is to make a good presentation. In such cases, most of them start thinking „Well, since I’m already here, I’ll just take what’s being offered. All the more so, the speaker seems to be quite cool…“

Mapping of needs

Listeners are always looking for an answer to their subconscious question: „How do I benefit from this?“ If you can answer their question, you’ve made a great step forward to creating a positive relationship with the audience. To answer this question, you need to know what your audience is expecting.

How can the audience benefit from your presentation?

Instead of reinventing the wheel, find out the purpose of your presentation from the organiser. Why are you invited and what should your presentation result in ideally?

I always ask this question, and it often turns out that the organiser hasn’t given it thought either. This, however, means a potential problem for you as a speaker, as in such cases, the rest of the organisational process needs improvement.

Why is this topic interesting for the listeners?

Is there any kind of professional need for this? How does it relate to their daily work? etc. In the worst case scenario, if nobody showed interest in your topic, the organiser chose it. In this case, you need to consider even more carefully about how to make your examples juicier.

Do the listeners have any particular expectations for you?

For example, my public speaking training is always very intense and fun. Participants always have tons of laughs and leave in a good mood. At one point, however, I had to lead a seminar on a slightly more serious topic (time management), which is no longer a fun topic. I finished my presentation, and a participant came up to me saying, „I really liked it, but as your public speaking training was very fun, I was expecting a lot of fun here too“.

Audience analysis may reveal that the listeners have expectations for you. If you know them, you can also prepare more thoroughly.

Prior knowledge mapping

There’s a certain kind of speakers who talk in what sounds like English but no-one can understand anything. They use sophisticated wording or use a specialized language nobody can understand.

There’s also another kind who speak at such a basic level that listening to them is just about as exciting as watching paint dry on the wall. You need to keep in mind that the role of the speaker is to adjust their presentation to the level of knowledge of the listeners.

The speaker also needs to give the listeners an opportunity to digest the information. If the listeners’ level of knowledge is different or the speaker doesn’t know them, it’s necessary to start with something simple and comprehensible, which, in turn, doesn’t mean that your presentation has to be flat and meaningless.

Here are some questions to think about during your audience analysis and before you go on with your presentation.

How much do they know about the topic?

This will give you an opportunity to clarify what level you need to prepare yourself for. If audience analysis reveals that the audience consists of listeners of different levels, where some know a lot, and others, not so much, you have to refer to it in your introduction.

For example, Good listeners! We have people here today who are very familiar with the topic, and there are also people who haven’t heard anything about it. I’d like to ask our experts a favour. If you feel like adding to my story, feel free to do so. But if you feel that my story is boring at times, please remember that I’m trying to help those who don’t really know much about the subject.

Are there experts among the listeners?

If there’s an expert in the audience who catches you red-handed making a factual mistake or two, they’d want to point them out (which has nothing to do with being a smarty pants). For you, this means that if someone is constantly correcting you, your credibility may decrease in the eyes of the listeners.

However, the same expert can also support you during your presentation.

For example, Janek, can I please add something? I’ve been working in this field for about 10 years and, based on my experience, I want to say that the speaker is correct. For my part, I’d like to point out one thing…

When someone in the audience says that the speaker is correct, it’s likely to enhance the speaker’s credibility. But remember, if audience analysis reveals that there’s an expert in the audience, you need to prepare even more thoroughly.

Have the listeners seen other speakers performing on the same topic?

It may happen that the listeners have already seen some other speaker performing on the same topic. It’s reasonable to use audience analysis to find out the main poins they remember. This will help you identify the sub-titles you don’t need to talk about for too long.

Which sources did they get their information from?

This is an exciting question as it gives you the opportunity to find out if there are „school differences“ or other issues. It may also turn out that all of you have the same sources, which means that your performance may not add much to what the listeners already know. In this case, be sure to prepare something extra.

Will the listeners understand the specialised language (or abbreviations) related to the topic?

The use of specialised language and abbreviations is a trap the speaker is often laying for themselves. You’re in the middle of something and think you’re using a simple language, but the reality is that the listeners don’t understand anything.

For example, „So you need a new operating system for your computer? Easy! Insert this DVD into your computer, restart your computer, and now boot it up from the disc. If it doesn’t boot from the disc, you need to access the BIOS and change the boot…“

Did you clearly understand what the previous paragraph is about? Most people don’t, but IT professionals must be laughing now, thinking „But there’s no way to make simpler“. Nonsense! If a person doesn’t know what „BIOS“ or „booting“ is, your point is lost.

Is your approach or attitude familiar to your audience?

Suppose you’re a politician who believes that taxes must be increased. However, audience analysis reveals that your listeners believe that taxes must be decreased. As you can see, your attitudes are entirely different, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you start arguing during your presentation.

Here, you can think about what arguments to use to support your views and how to deal with counter-arguments. If you know the topic and have made several presentations on it, you may have heard a lot of conter-arguments.

Now, it’s worth thinking about whether to include them in your speech, explaining and opposing them. This way, you’ll be able to disarm your listeners. Another option is to prepare the answers to the counter-arguments, so that nothing can catch you off guard.

You can read about how to make a proper persuasive speech here.

Audience analysis and other exciting questions

The questions mentioned above are just a few most important ones to ask about your listeners when performing audience analysis. In this section, I will highlight some other questions worth paying attention to.

What happens before or after your speech?

One thing is to be the first speaker of the day, and a completely different thing is to be the last speaker. There’re always good and bad sides to everything, but it is likely that the last speaker of a really long day is under a bit more pressure. Why? Because the listeners are already tired and some of them tend to be looking at their watches.

Also, check if your speech is preceded by (or followed by) lunch. If lunch is scheduled immediately before your presentation, remember that the life of a healthy person is a struggle… meaning that before lunch, we are hungry and after lunch, sleepy. One of my students described it as „soup coma”.

You may be the world’s best speaker, but when you’re full, the room is warm, and the sun’s kissing your head, the nature takes its course. The only way to overcome it is to encourage your listeners even more. Ask them questions and let them talk. If possible, do a couple of stimulating exercises, etc. The main thing is to get you through the first half an hour – it will be easier from then on.

What does the room look like?

I believe that most rooms are furnished by people who are anything but public speakers. This is also the reason why these rooms are quite often negatively surprising. During the audience analysis ask the organiser about what kind of room you’re being offered, and what options are available there.

Personally, in addition to asking this question, I also ask the organiser to send me pictures of the room. They give me an early idea of what I can change in the room.

What topics are other speakers presenting?

When attending a seminar, conference, or multi-speaker training day, it’s always worth finding out what topics other speakers will be presenting. If any other speaker presents a topic similar to yours, it’s reasonable to contact the other speaker and clarify things. This will help you avoid the situation where you suddenly start talking about something someone else was talking about an hour ago.

In addition, getting acquainted with the topics of other speakers gives you an opportunity to draw parallels with your examples or stories to what others were talking about.

A bonus question always worth asking

There’s one question I always ask the organiser when analysing the audience, in addition to all the other questions. The answers to this question quite often tell me something I wouldn’t otherwise know about the listeners or the event in general.

The Bonus Question: „Is there anything I forgot, but should know?“. Ask this question, and you’ll see what kind of exciting answers you can get from there.

Where do I get the answers from?

Where do I get the answers from?

The honest answer is… you don’t get answers to most of the questions. Point is, the more questions you ask in relation to your topic, the more answers you get. Most of the speakers don’t (or don’t want to) deal with it, so they arrive to talk about something that their listeners couldn’t care less about.

Where do you get the answers from? Start by questioning the person who invites you to make a presentation as they give you the initial assignment. Talk to them in detail, thoroughly analysing all the details about the listeners, the organisers, and the objective of your presentation.

If possible, ask them for the list of participants (with company names). It gives you an opportunity to gather some information through Google, Facebook, and other social media channels.

If it’s a small audience, you can also send them a short questionnaire. For example, you can write that you’re sending a short questionnaire (a week or a couple of weeks in advance), asking four questions in addition to the participant’s name and age. These questions are:

  1. What is your public speaking experience? How was it and what do you think of public speaking?
  2. What is the main reason for your fear of public speaking? Why are you afraid of making a speech?
  3. How do you most expect to benefit from your training?
  4. Have you ever participated in any public speaking training? If yes, please list a few key points you remember.

Answering four questions is a piece of cake for the participant, but gives me a lot of information about them. Quite often, I also get feedback that, as far as I want to know the expectations of the listeners, this pre-survey alone creates a positive attitude among the participants.

Summary: Audience analysis gives you the opportunity to make a presentation your listeners can benefit from

Proper preparation is the key to success. If you take your time to prepare, you’re likely to succeed. As mentioned above, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. When preparing for a presentation, try to find out as much information about your audience as possible. Who are they? Why are they attending? What do they believe? etc. The more information you get, the more listener-focussed your speech will be.

Start collecting information about your audience early and don’t leave it to the last minute. My questions may not always be relevant for your speech, so think of the above-mentioned questions as patterns.

Of course, much depends on a specific situation or topic. The rule of thumb is to take into account your listeners’ interests, needs, and expectations. Always remember that you’re not the most important person in the room. Your listeners are much more important. Also, don’t forget the important question of “What do i do if…”

Related questions

What is elevator pitch? An elevator pitch is a well-thought, meaningful, and repeatedly practisced brief (about 30-60 seconds long) overview of who you are, what you offer, and how your partner can benefit from it (full article here).

What is an impromptu speech? An impromptu speech is a speech which given without any thorough preparation. It is five- to eight-minute speech with a characteristically short preparation time of couple of minutes. (full article here)

What is a persuasive speech? The main objective of a persuasive speech is to make your listeners do what you want them to do. For example, „buy my product“, „vote for me“, „believe what I’m talking about“, and so on.(full article here)

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Who is Janek Tuttar?

My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of Speak and Conquer website.

I have been teaching public speaking at Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences

Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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Janek Tuttar

Hi! My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of SpeakAndConquer.com.

I have been teaching and blogging about public speaking since spring 2007. Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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