04June 2024

Public Speaking Tips for Assessing an Audience

10 tips for assessing an audience

Who am I talking to?
How do I reach them?
Where do I need to be careful?

In the 5 canons of rhetoric:
Inspiration, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery,
the third one, Style, deals most with the tone and style of content and may need to be addressed when you consider your audience.

This was brought home to me most clearly when I delivered training in Secondary School.
There would be some days when I would sense as I was entering the building that today was not a day for flippant remarks, little jokes or smart observations.

There was always going to be a danger that any light aside might be misunderstood and any time you find yourself saying:
‘But I was only joking!’
it is already much too late!
So I was aware of areas where ‘I might need to be careful’.
Equally when I thought about ‘How do I reach them?’ Although I already knew the messages and the learning points I wanted to get across, I was aware that I needed to adapt some of the examples and analogies I used to illustrate them.
There is little point in talking about University, if none of the students expect to go there.
There is little point in talking about expanding influence if the students would rather be left alone. There is little point in talking about what it takes to become a successful speaker if none of the students wanted to become one.

Therefore Step One when planning a presentation should never be:
‘What do I want to say?’
‘Who am I talking to?
How do I reach them?’

10 tips for assessing an audience

  1. Ask the host

There is an old Public Speaker’s joke, often trotted out at the beginning of the presentation:
‘To help me prepare for this evening, I asked the host:
Could you send me a list of everyone attending tonight’s presentation, broken down by age and sex?
And she replied:
They all are!’
(Boom boom)
The question however is a valid one – maybe not necessarily by age and sex, but
who is likely to be in the audience,
what are their motivations
why are they attending?
Brian Tracey’s words:
‘To sell Joe Jones what Joe Jones buys
You need to see the world through Joe Jones’ eyes.’
are particularly apt here.
If you want your presentation to be successful, it is important to know who you are talking to.
And if you are unsure or want that little bit of extra guidance, the simplest solution is to ask the person arranging the event.

  1. Ask the audience

Do not take this one too literally.
If it is just to get a gentle steer or a level of buy-in, it can be useful to offer an audience an apparent choice between A and B.  However you need to be very clear what A and B are and both need to be fairly closely related, so that your presentation is not suddenly torn into a different direction.  Often in training, I may say to a group:
‘I have a series of exercises for today.  I can either use each one to focus on specific work scenarios, or I can leave them open for you to choose whatever subject matter you wish.’
Whether they choose A or B, we still do the exercises.  I am just giving them a small choice in terms of content.
In sales, this might be called the ‘assumptive close’
‘Would you like it in blue or green?’
The assumption is that you are buying it anyway!
If half the room says ‘work scenarios’ and half says ‘more general’, I still can allow each half to choose what works best for them without losing the purpose.

  1. Meet the Audience

I remember attending a function where before the formal speech, the speaker took the opportunity to come out and meet the audience during a break, to find out who was out there and to get a sense of what type of audience they had.
I have also heard speakers saying, that before the function, as the audience is coming in, they might hang around the foyer to gain a sense of the audience.  This works particularly well if you are not ‘famous’ or likely to be instantly recognised: a chance to go ‘incognito’ and gain a sense of who you will be talking to.

  1. Rugby Club or Women’s Institute

Happily, we are moving increasingly into an age where what we say is either in good taste or not, rather than having a few jokes that you could use here, that you would not dare use over there.

There used to be  - and maybe still are – comedians whose whole act could not be recorded and released because the tone and content would be too offensive to most of society.
I am certainly not talking about ‘cancel culture’, where we need to dance on the head of a politically correct pin for fear of offending people.
However, the job of a communicator is to get their message across and if they have some content, allusions or jokes that could switch an audience off, they will not be succeeding in their prime objective.
The salesperson who returns to the office and tells their manager that they put their potential client right on a few things and the manager says:
‘But did they buy anything?...That is why we sent you there!’
On the simplest level – having taken on board tips 1 – 3, you might want to reflect on any potential cultural or social diversity.
The point is:
‘Are my examples and analogies best suited to resonate with this audience?

  1. Worms or Strawberries

Dale Carnegie in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ explains that although he likes strawberries, when he goes fishing he baits his hook with worms – because that is what the fish like!

If you are passionate about everything computers and computer software and you are explaining to fellow enthusiasts in the IT department how a new programme works, you can be as technical as you like.
However, if you are introducing new software to staff in the HR department who have no interest in how it works, just in how they need to use it, you will need to adapt the ‘style’ of the presentation by suppressing some of your technical enthusiasm and focusing on how it can help them.

  1. Questionnaire

Tip # 2 ‘Ask the Audience’ might come too late in the day if you are already standing on stage.
In my experience, some hosts or training heads can be very helpful and will collect written suggestions from their attendees about what they would like to hear.
This can be very helpful early in the planning process, especially if you are not sure what would have the best impact.

This works very well if a major purpose of the speech is to entertain.  If they love hearing about travelling adventures, then that would be an excellent place to start.
However, I have also made the discovery, particularly when preparing a training programme, that what the attendees ask for is in fact what they already know; what they need they are not asking for because they are not even aware that it exists.
Therefore if you are asking for suggestions, focus more on asking:
‘What do you want to get out of the evening?’
rather than:
‘What do you want to hear about?’
That way, as the expert, you have the freedom to decide what you need to cover to help them achieve their goals, rather than being limited to talking about specific content.

  1. Put your toe in the water

When I worked as a musician, I had the opportunity to play in a huge variety of contexts.
When playing in a West End show it was fascinating, while sitting sheltered in the orchestra pit, to assess within the first few minutes what type of audience we had.
On some evening we would quickly realise that if the audience laughed at ‘that’, they would laugh at everything and equally if they did not laugh at a particular line, they were going to be hard work all evening.

So when speaking, you might have a few moments early on when you can take the temperature of the room – if they like that, then I can give them a bit more, similar or vice versa.

This will be particularly true with attempts a humour.
They did not laugh:
Was that the wrong type of humour?
Should I avoid humour altogether?

  1. Observe verbal cues

If you are about to start a meeting and you have a room with many folded arms and a lot of defiance or much absence of eye-contact, you may have a problem.
If this is likely to be a problem, then it would have been useful to adopt some of the suggestions above before you arrived.
Nevertheless, sometimes it just happens!
It will be down to one of three reasons:
(i)         they don’t like you
(ii)        they don’t like what you are talking about
(iii)       they don’t want to be there
This is why I am always emphasising the need to have a clear simple structure because if it is simple, it will be easier for you to tweak and adapt and if it is too complicated, you are likely to be so immersed in trying to remember what you intend to say that you won’t even notice that everyone in the room is looking daggers at you.
The choice of response is simple: either, or…

  1. …Ignore it

You are aware of the resistance, but either there is not the time or you see no benefit in addressing it.
You are sufficiently confident in your message that you know you will win them over with your presentation.
When Marc Antony stands up to speak at Caesar’s funeral in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there are grumbles and murmurs in the audience, but Marc Antony knows that his rhetorical skills are such that once he starts, he will win the public over.
I once played in the orchestra on tour for Dame Shirley Bassey.
We arrived in Wiesbaden in Germany, where I believe on a previous tour the concert had been cancelled and on this evening Dame Shirley was also late coming on stage.
We started to hear whistles and cat calls and there were even a few boos when she came on stage.
What did she do?
She blew them away with the first number!
Within three minutes she had turned the whole auditorium around.

  1. …Address it

You are aware that there is resistance to you, to your subject or to its relevance to your audience and on this occasion you realise that unless the objection is addressed, it will be hard to win their attention.
It will usually be clear which of the three objections is uppermost.
Therefore before you launch into your full presentation,
you should, with apparent confidence, clarity and calm address the potential issue.
(i)         they don’t like you
Explain who you are, your experience and qualifications and why it is you delivering the presentation
(ii)        they don’t like what you are talking about
Empathise with their resistance and let them know there is a good reason for your being there
(iii)       they don’t want to be there
Reassure them quickly that it is in their interest to be there, that the presentation is designed to help them.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.