Department of Communication

Audience Adaptation

Overview

Audience analysis involves identifying the audience and adapting a speech to their interests, level of understanding, attitudes, and beliefs. Taking an audience-centered approach is important because a speaker’s effectiveness will be improved if the presentation is created and delivered in an appropriate manner. Identifying the audience through extensive research is often difficult, so audience adaptation often relies on the healthy use of imagination.

As with many valuable tools, audience analysis can be used to excess. Adapting a speech to an audience is not the same thing as simply telling an audience what they want to hear. Audience analysis does not mean ‘grandstanding’ or ‘kowtowing’ to a public. Rather, adaptation guides the stylistic and content choices a speaker makes for a presentation. Audience adaptation often involves walking a very fine line between over-adapting and under-adapting – a distinction that can be greater appreciated by understanding the general components of this skill.

Factors in Audience Analysis

Audience expectations. When people become audience members in a speech situation, they bring with them expectations about the occasion, topic, and speaker. Violating audience expectations can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the speech. Imagine that a local politician is asked to speak at the memorial service for a beloved former mayor. The audience will expect the politician’s speech to praise the life and career of the deceased. If the politician used the opportunity to discuss a piece of legislation, the audience would probably be offended and the speaker would lose credibility. Of course, there may be some situations when violating the audience’s expectations would be an effective strategy. Presenters that make political statements at the Academy Awards do so precisely because the message’s incongruity with the occasion increases the impact of the proclamation.

Knowledge of topic. Audience knowledge of a topic can vary widely on any given occasion; therefore, communicators should find out what their audience already knows about the topic. Never overestimate the audience’s knowledge of a topic. If a speaker launches into a technical discussion of genetic engineering but the listeners are not familiar with basic genetics, they will be unable to follow your speech and quickly lose interest. On the other hand, drastically underestimating the audience’s knowledge may result in a speech that sounds condescending. Try to do some research to find out what the audience already knows about the topic. Giving a brief review of important terms and concepts is almost always appropriate, and can sometimes be done by acknowledging the heterogenous audience and the importance of ‘putting everyone on the same page.’ For example, even if the audience members were familiar with basic genetics, a brief review of key term and concepts at the beginning of a speech refreshes memories without being patronizing.

Attitude toward topic. Knowing audience members’ attitudes about a topic will help a speaker determine the best way to reach their goals. Imagine that a presenter is trying to convince the community to build a park. A speaker would probably be inclined to spend the majority of the speech giving reasons why a park would benefit the community. However, if they found out ahead of time that most neighbors thought the park was a good idea but they were worried about safety issues, then the speaker could devote their time to showing them that park users would be safer in the park than they currently are playing in the streets. The persuasive power of the speech is thus directed at the most important impediment to the building of a park.

Audience size. Many elements of speech-making change in accordance with audience size. In general, the larger the audience the more formal the presentation should be. Sitting down and using common language when speaking to a group of 10 people is often quite appropriate. However, that style of presentation would probably be inappropriate or ineffective if you were speaking to 1,000 people. Large audiences often require that you use a microphone and speak from an elevated platform.

Demographics. The demographic factors of an audience include age, gender, religion, ethnic background, class, sexual orientation, occupation, education, group membership, and countless other categories. Since these categories often organize individual’s identities and experiences, a wise speaker attends to them. Politicians usually pay a great deal of attention to demographic factors when they are on the campaign trail. If a politician speaks in Day County, Florida (the county with the largest elderly population) they will likely discuss the issues that are more relevant to people in that age range – Medicare and Social Security. Communicators must be careful about stereotyping an audience based on demographic information – individuals are always more complicated than a simplistic identity category. Also, be careful not to pander exclusively to interests based on demographics. For example, the elderly certainly are concerned with political issues beyond social security and Medicare. Using demographic factors to guide speech-making does not mean changing the goal of the speech for every different audience; rather, consider what pieces of information (or types of evidence) will be most important for members of different demographic groups.

Setting. The setting of a presentation can influence the ability to give a speech and the audience’s ability and desire to listen. Some of these factors are: the set-up of the room (both size and how the audience is arranged), time of day, temperature, external noises (lawn mowers, traffic), internal noises (babies crying, hacking coughs), and type of space (church, schoolroom, outside). Finding out ahead of time the different factors going into the setting will allow a speaker to adapt their speech appropriately. Will there be a stage? Will there be a podium or lectern? What technology aids will be available? How are the seats arranged? What is the order of speakers? While these issues may appear minor compared to the content of the speech and the make-up of the audience, this foreknowledge will soothe nerves, assist in developing eye contact, and ensure that the appropriate technology, if necessary, is available. Take into account the way that the setting will affect audience attention and participation. People are usually tired after a meal and late in the day. If scheduled to speak at 1:00 PM, a speaker may have to make the speech more entertaining through animation or humor, exhibit more enthusiasm, or otherwise involve the audience in order to keep their attention.

Voluntariness. Audiences are either voluntary, in which case they are genuinely interested in what a presenter has to say, or involuntary, in which case they are not inherently interested in the presentation. Knowing the difference will assist in establishing how hard a speaker needs to work to spark the interest of the audience. Involuntary audiences are notoriously hard to generate and maintain interest in a topic (think about most people’s attitudes toward classes or mandatory meetings they would prefer to not attend.)

Egocentrism. Most audience members are egocentric: they are generally most interested in things that directly affect them or their community. An effective speaker must be able to show their audience why the topic they are speaking on should be important to them.

Tips for analyzing an audience

Define target audience. In most audiences there will be a mix of opinions about any topic. There are usually some people who agree with a speaker’s claim, some people who are strongly opposed, others who are undecided, and still others that are apathetic. Conventional wisdom maintains that a communicator does not need to focus on the people who already agree with them and the people who strongly disagree with them will probably not be persuaded by one speech. Therefore, generally the target audience is composed of those people who fall between the two extremes – they are the ones that a speaker should be primarily concerned with. Composing a speech with them in mind enables a speaker to have their greatest impact. Of course, the conventional wisdom is just that—conventional. Some speakers are so dynamic (or terrible) that they can transform beliefs of the audience that falls outside the ‘undecided’ category.

Research. At times, a presenter may be able to learn about their audience by researching in the library or on the internet. This can be especially helpful when speaking to members of a distinct organization. For example, if asked to speak to the local chapter of the Sierra Club, visiting their web page and finding out about the goals and beliefs of the organization would reveal publically stated goals. Obtaining brochures or other literature from the organization or group will enhance audience analysis. At the very least, the person(s) who arranged the speaking engagement should be able to give some information about the audience that will be attending. Asking them about the audience’s expectations of the event, the setting of the speech, and other key questions about the different elements will make audience analysis more productive.

Survey. Conducting a survey is one way to find out about the values, beliefs, and knowledge of an audience. Surveys allow a speaker to gain specific information from a large number of people. With access to the audience before a speech, an orator may be able to give brief written surveys to all audience members. Surveys may include open-ended questions (“How do you feel about animal research?”) and close-ended questions (“Do you approve of animal research?”). Here are some tips for constructing a survey:

  1. Keep the survey short. Get the information you need in as few questions as possible.
  2. Keep questions short and focused.
  3. Choose the wording carefully and make questions concise.
  4. Avoid leading or loaded questions.

Interview. Learning about an audience by conducting interviews is the most helpful but usually most unrealistic way to understand an audience. Unlike surveys that can obtain information from many people in a short amount of time, interviews are much more time consuming. Interviewing all members of the audience is often impossible or unreasonable. A possible alternative is to converse with a representative sample of the audience. A representative sample is a small subset of the audience that maintains the demographic proportions of the whole audience. For example, if speaking to a group that was 90% female, making sure that interviewees were also about 90% female would establish a representative sample.

Reminders so nice they need mentioning twice:

Avoid stereotyping. Although thorough audience analysis demands taking demographic factors into account, such analysis does not legitimate stereotyping. Stereotypes are fixed beliefs or opinions about people in a particular group. Stereotyping neglects individual differences and often causes people to make decisions based on flawed reasoning. The best way to avoid stereotyping is to learn as much as possible about an audience using the above techniques instead of relying on preconceived notions of a group.

Do not simply tell the audience what they want to hear. The oldest and most common criticism of rhetoric, especially persuasive speech, is that it is mere flattery; a way for an advocate to pander to an audience. Politicians are often accused of doing just this—changing their stance on an issue to please different audiences that they address. To prevent this behavior, begin the planning of every speech with a clear goal to accomplish (i.e. “To inform my audience about online education” or “To persuade my audience that my research project deserves funding”). This goal should remain constant regardless of the specific audience being addressed. Audience analysis should be used to discover the best available means to reach that goal. Be true to this purpose, but tailor the speech to the audience.

Continue to analyze the audience. Audience analysis continues even after beginning to speak. As a speaker, pay attention to the feedback that audience members give. If a presenter notices that several people look confused, then they may have overestimated their audience’s knowledge of the topic. Take the time to clarify terms and give necessary background information. If an audience looks bored, then figure out how to spice up the speech—either with more audience involvement or more excitement. The speech will have the greatest opportunity for success if the speaker treats their audience members as active agents in the speaking process.