One of the most important and fundamental steps before delivering a speech is that a speaker should know the needs of their audience. This does not mean that every speaker can fulfill every wish of an audience, but effective public speakers know how their audience is going to react to their message. In every speech you give, whether it is to inform, motivate, or entertain, you should know an audience”s likes, dislikes, and interests. In this chapter, we will examine why you should research your audience, and how to perform the necessary research.
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Every member of your audience will come to your speech with a purpose in mind. When your speech is finished, either they will leave with this purpose fulfilled or they will leave disappointed because you did not deliver the message they were expecting. Before we examine why you should know the needs of your audience, let us discuss why you were chosen to speak in the first place.
If you are invited to deliver a speech, it obviously means that the person or organization inviting you thinks that you possess the qualities necessary to deliver a message to their audience. If an organization needs to raise funds, for example, they may invite a speaker who is very well known in their community or in their profession to generate interest. Sometimes referred to as a keynote speaker, this speaker is the headliner of an event, and their presence alone can help to raise funds and awareness. However, such a speaker needs to do more than just show up, they still need to know the needs of their audience and understand what they are expecting.
Other reasons you might have been invited to speak is to entertain an audience, to offer expert knowledge, or simply to sell a product or service. Each of these types of invitations gives you a clear sense, from the very beginning, of what your audience might be expecting.
Unfortunately, you do not get a second chance to make a first impression. This old adage is quite true when it comes to public speaking. If you are going to be speaking in front of a group of strangers whom you have never met, you must work hard to anticipate and understand their needs well in advance of your speech. Similarly, if you are speaking in front of a well known audience, one that has invited you to speak many times, you must ensure that your message, or delivery, is consistent with what they are expecting. If you are a well known personality who is known for a certain style, a certain sense of humor, or a particular skill level, you must ensure that you meet the expectation that your familiar audience has come to expect.
Second only to rehearsing, knowing your audience will also help you alleviate any anxiety or stage fright that you might have. If you fully understand why people are coming to see you and you fully appreciate what they are expecting, you will feel more confident that they will be satisfied at the end of your speech and leave with their wishes fulfilled.
Researching an Audience
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The Host and Actual Audience Members
Obviously, the first place you should start in researching an audience is with the person who invited you to speak. They will usually have a clear understanding of the audience”s needs and, in most instances, they will know many, if not all, of the people who are going to attend. One tactic used by many professional speakers is to interview some members of the audience well in advance of the speech. Most people are truly flattered when you ask for their opinion, and they are especially willing to give advice if you have specifically deemed them representative of a group of their peers. Ask the person who invited you for the contact information of several audience members who would be willing to be interviewed, and ask the invitee to notify these people that you will be contacting them.
Geographical and Cultural Concerns
If you are asked to speak to a local group, a group that is a part of your own community, you will probably already have a good understanding of local customs and cultural traditions. However, if you are being asked to speak to an audience in a foreign city, or especially a foreign country, one of your first duties is to ensure that you familiarize yourself with the proper way to behave in front of them. Travel guidebooks and the Internet are both invaluable resources that can help you research this information. Even if you are speaking to a familiar audience who knows you, it is still considered good practice to research the group”s demographics beforehand to see if they have changed.
Current Events and Knowing the Context
Just as it is important to understand local customs, it is equally important to know what is making news in an audience”s community. There might be several points in your speech that would slightly offend certain people, or the entire group, if they were spoken in the wrong context. Especially if you are speaking in front of an audience in an unfamiliar setting, the audience will feel appreciated if you spend the time to get to know them. The Internet makes it possible to read the news of virtually any city in the world. Spend some time getting to know the community before you arrive.
Know the Size of the Audience
An extremely important consideration is the size of the audience. In a previous chapter, we learned that there are several different types of communication. There is a distinct difference between small group and public communication. If you are speaking in front of a large group, you may not have as many people pay very close attention to your speech, whereas a small group is more apt to hang on every word. The size of the group will have an influence on how you write your speech. If, for example, you are speaking in front of a small group, try to incorporate some of the audience members into your speech. If you were invited to speak in front of a group of scientists, for example, research some of the accomplishments of the audience members and be sure to mention them in your speech.
Age of Your Audience
Just as the size of an audience can determine how to speak to them, the average age of your audience will influence what they are expecting and how your message should be conveyed. To use an obvious example, a speech to high school students would certainly be very different from a speech to senior citizens, but there could be not-so-obvious considerations. Knowing the age of your audience will often help you determine the level of detail you use, the language you use, and it can also have an influence on the visual aids that you might use throughout your speech.
Before you arrive for your speech, ensure that you know how your audience will appear. Nothing would make you more uncomfortable, or perhaps an audience more insulted, if you arrive dressed in an inappropriate manner. You should first check with the person who invited you to speak and ask them how you should be dressed for the occasion.
If you are speaking to an audience of Nobel laureates in physics, you can probably safely assume that they will not be intimidated by scientific facts and knowledge. However, if you are unsure of an audience”s comfort level with your expert knowledge in an area, you need to do your homework in determining the intelligence level of an audience. You certainly do not want to intimidate an audience with your knowledge but you also do not want to bore them. Regardless of the type of speech you are giving, you should know how much information an audience is comfortable receiving.
Choosing the Topic and Structure of a Speech
Even if you have been invited to give a speech and have been given some general guidelines on what to cover in your speech, it is entirely up to you to choose the theme and to keep focused on this theme throughout your entire speech. The theme is the message that you are communicating to an audience. One of the first questions you need to ask yourself before you begin planning the structure of your speech is, “What is my message, and what is the most important point that I wish to make?”
To determine the precise message that you wish to convey to an audience, you will need to establish the scope of your topic. Naturally, you want the scope to be broad enough so that you have enough material to construct a full speech for the time allotted to you. However, equally as important, you want the scope to be narrow enough so that it addresses the precise points that you wish to convey.
Let us use a speech on healthcare as an example. Let us assume you were asked to speak to a group of physicians on the merits of healthcare reforms. The general topic of healthcare reform might indeed be too broad for this speech. However, narrowing down your scope to the merits of reform in the geriatric community will significantly increase your ability to send a specific message to the audience.
After you clearly define the scope of your topic, it is time to state your primary point explicitly, or your message. Write out your message in one sentence, and only one sentence. It should be a clear, concise point. If you asked an audience member after your speech to describe the general theme or purpose of the speech, this is the sentence that you would like to hear from him or her.
After you have clearly established your main point, you should create two additional points, the secondary and tertiary points of your speech. These additional points should support your topic, and they should help you in drafting your speech by providing some additional material. You must ensure, however, that your additional points do not detract the audience from your main point. With your main message in mind, and the support of additional points, you will easily be able to draft the outline of your speech.
When you have determined these three points for your speech, you should ask yourself if these points are in line with your own personal beliefs. As discussed in a former chapter, Integrity is a vital characteristic of an effective communicator. If, after you have established your principle points, you determine that you are not fully comfortable with your message, the audience will sense this uncertainty. You must feel passionate about what you are saying.
If you have been invited to speak before an audience and were given some general guidelines for your speech, the choice of a topic is naturally easier because you have received some degree of guidance. However, what if you are given complete discretion on choosing a topic? For many people, such a situation contributes to the anxiety of public speaking, but by using a few introspective questions, you can decide on a topic that will engage your audience.
The first step, of course, is to consider the audience. Are you involved in this organization? If so, the accomplishments you have achieved as a group will provide you with many ideas for topics. For example, you could draft a speech on how your organization has improved the community.