Public Speaking: 10 Questions To Analyze Your Audience

This is the second post in a three-part series about crafting an audience-focused message. Links to the other two posts are at the bottom of this one.

What would you think of a dermatologist who offered you a diagnosis for an itchy red spot on your leg that’s been growing larger for weeks—without even bothering to look at it?

Not much, probably. No wonder it makes me nervous when I see presenters rushing into any audience without knowing anything about the people to whom they’re speaking. They’re making the same mistake as the dermatologist.

Identifying your BSO was a crucial start. But if you’re going to ask people to do something new or think in a different way—and you almost certainly will, as most talks are intended to move them from one point to another—it’s essential to add one more piece to the equation, without which none of your other efforts will matter: your audience.

Who is your audience? word on white ring binder notebook with hand holding pencil on wood table,Business concept.
Because every group is different, what you learn about each one may require you to modify your bright shiny object—at least a little—after you run it through the filter of the audience.

The following 10 diagnostic questions will help you decide what alterations you should make to your BSO, if any, and will almost certainly influence the overall approach you take for your talk.

1. Who are they?

To properly diagnose an audience, you need to understand who they are. Depending on your topic, knowing something about your audience’s age, income, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, profession, political affiliation, professional experience, current job title, educational background, organizational memberships, and hobbies can change the way you frame your topic.

2. Who are you?

Does the audience have a predetermined opinion of you, your organization, or your profession? If so, and if they’re prone to view you skeptically, you’ll want to establish common ground early.

3. What do they value?

Knowing what matters most to your audience allows you to align your speech topic with their most deeply-held values. For example, if you’re a representative from a local credit union who is speaking to a veterans group that values community service highly, you might place a greater emphasis on your institution’s local charitable endeavors than on your low interest rates. (You might even discuss your interest rates in the context of how they benefit the community.)

4. How relevant is your topic to them?

If the audience is already invested in your topic and understands its relevance to their lives, you probably don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining why they should care about it. But if audience members are unlikely to understand your topic’s relevance, draw the connection between your topic and their interests quickly.

Who is your audience?5. How much do they already know about your topic?

Your answer will help determine whether you should focus on the basics, more advanced material, or some point in between.

6. How much do they need to know in order to accomplish your goals?

Many speakers answer with some version of “not much”—but then prepare presentations loaded with detail. This question centers speakers on making sure the amount of detail they intend to share matches the amount of detail they need to share in order to accomplish their goals.

7. Do they view your topic favorably, neutrally, or negatively?

Gauging how much resistance you’re likely to encounter may influence what you say and how you sequence your material. For groups that view your topic negatively, it’s generally best to raise their likely objections early in your talk, before they raise them for you.

8. What gaps in knowledge or misconceptions do they have about your topic?

The larger the misconception or gap in knowledge, the better it is to address it early in your talk. Since a proposal or idea can’t move forward until those misconceptions or gaps are sufficiently addressed, you may need to spend a substantial amount of time in those areas before moving on.

9. What challenges or problems do they have related to your topic?

Knowing what challenges or problems your audience faces can provide critical insight into how they might use the information you’re sharing. That knowledge can shift or narrow the frame of your talk to address their specific concerns. I once saw a speaker with a not-for-profit organization encourage his colleagues from another department to get out of the office and visit donors more frequently. It never occurred to him to learn why they hadn’t been doing that in the first place. It turned out that his colleagues all agreed with him—but their requests to leave the office had been turned down repeatedly by their supervisor. His failure to diagnose the audience’s challenges in advance resulted in a waste of everyone’s time. Had he learned the problem, he might have offered a more relevant solution—or deferred to someone else who could have provided one.

10. Are you speaking to one constituency or many?

Many groups have a variety of constituencies present, some of which have conflicting goals: senior managers and junior employees; supporters and opponents; manufacturers and regulators. On his public speaking website Six Minutes, Andrew Dlugan offers three approaches for mixed audiences:

  • “Speak to only one sub-group of the audience and ignore the others.” This risky approach works best when you require the buy-in of only one segment of the group.
  • “Address each of your audience sub-groups with different parts of your presentation.”
  • “Ignore the differences between audience members, and instead focus on common appeals.”

This is the second post in a three-part series about crafting an audience-focused message. Read the whole series!

Part One: The One Question To Ask Before Every Presentation

Part Two: 10 Questions to Analyze Your Audience (This Post)

Part Three: Your ABSO: Audience-Focused Bright Shiny Object