At a conference earlier this year, I hosted a panel discussion of experience speakers. I asked them their thoughts on the most important aspect of public speaking. Every panellist said the same thing – your audience. If you are an accomplished speaker – confident, polished, charismatic – but your audience is not interested in or does not understand what you are saying, you will not make an impact, no matter how well you speak. Understanding your audience and why they should be interested in your speech is essential to effective public speaking.
When preparing a speech, presentation or for any situation where you are going to speak (meetings, interviews, conferences), make sure you analyse who will be in the audience.
Try to find out about the demographics. If you are presenting to a particular organisation, research who their staff or members are. Some might have specific membership requirements, which influence demographics. Their membership are likely to have a shared interest, which you can use.
Think about where you are presenting. Are the audience from one place (for example a conference for Manchester based firms) or could they be from anywhere (much more likely for online webinars open to all). I’ve seen people give speeches with very British references. We were in the UK, however, the audience was multinational and many did not understand the colloquialisms. Likewise, the most cringe-worthy stand-up comedy routines seem to occur when the comedians misjudge the audience. Telling jokes which most of the audience simply do not find funny, due to their background, gender, age, nationality…
The technical knowledge of your audience is one of the most important considerations. Understanding how much they know about your subject already is vital to pitch your presentation at the right level. Technical audiences do not need every term explained. Non-technical audiences will quickly lose interest if they do not understand half of what you say. When speaking to those not experienced in your specialism, make sure you explain technicalities and do not lapse into acronyms.
This can be one of the trickiest aspects of making presentations if there are potentially people with a mixture of experience levels in your room. To overcome this, the most important thing to remember is purpose. Why are you giving the presentation? This should tell you the typical audience member that it is aimed at and you should cater to. If there happen to be people in the audience with more or less technical expertise, who are going to get bored or lost, maybe they are not in the right place.
Friends / Colleagues / Strangers
There is often a difference in how you feel about speaking, depending on who is in your audience. Sometimes seeing the friendly faces of people you know well might relax you. Sometimes it could make it harder to speak.
In her book “The Art of Gathering” Priya Parker explains why this might be the case. She postulates “it is often easier to confess parts of our lives with strangers, who have no stake in our lives, than with intimates who do. Your friends and family know who you have been and they often make it harder to try out who you might become”.
When I first started speaking, everything made me nervous. Finding a supportive audience was helpful to my development. The more I practiced, the less nervous I was. There were still differences depending on whether I was speaking at my speaking club, work or the voluntary organisation I was leading. Understanding those differences, for me as well as the people I was speaking to, allowed me to tailor my speeches. And whether it is people you know or don’t know, knowing what to expect and preparing accordingly is vital.
If in doubt, ask!
If you are requested to make a presentation, don’t be afraid to ask what the audience want. I needed to make a presentation about my team for an away day. This was to a part of the business I worked with in another country. In preparation, I asked some of the people I was presenting to what they would find most helpful. By asking what the audience wanted, I avoided simply talking about my team from my own perspective. Some of the technical things we were working on I found interesting, but would have meant very little to the other part of the business. I sought to understand the perspective of my audience. This enabled me to speak about how my team related to the people to whom I was presenting. The feedback I received was that the presentation was engaging and useful.
No matter what you are talking about, the audience is the most important part of public speaking. Putting yourself in your audience’s position should help you refine your message, select the most appropriate stories and examples (see “killing your darlings” in this article) and make the connection you need to ensure your speech is engaging and impactful.