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Public Speaking: Know Your Audience

This story was updated on 10/26/2022.

Whether you are presenting to a group of 20 or 200, there are many things you can do in advance to ensure that your presentation achieves the desired response—the most important of which is knowing and understanding your audience, not to mention the venue logistics.

Three things to know about your audience

Three essential pieces of information you should gather about your audience prior to preparing your speech include:

1. Why your topic matters to them.

To connect with your audience, you need to understand why your topic is important to them. What do they expect to learn from the presentation? Don't assume the audience is like you. They may have cultural or geographic biases—and the more you understand those biases, the better you can express your ideas and avoid speaking gaffes.

2. The level of knowledge your audience has about the topic.

Understand how much your audience knows about the topic so you can present the information with the correct tone to keep them interested and engaged. The last thing you want to do is present basic information to a highly knowledgeable audience, or conversely, speak at too high a level for a novice audience.

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3. Cultural differences your audience may have.

If you are presenting in a foreign country, it is important to understand the cultural differences of the audience. How do they dress? How is their sense of humor? How do they typically communicate? What gestures are appropriate or inappropriate? Are there religious factors that should be considered?

Four ways to better engage your audience

There are several things you can do to prepare, both before and at the beginning of your speech, that will help you better engage the audience.

1. Research in advance

Prior to the meeting or event, speak to its organizer or sponsor and find out the level of knowledge the audience has on the topic for discussion. Ask about the audience's expectations as well as their demographics—age, background, gender, and more. If you are presenting at an industry event, research the event website and familiarize yourself with the mission of the event and typical attendees.

If you are presenting to a corporation, learn as much as you can about them by visiting their website, reading news reports, and reviewing their blogs.

2. Be familiar with the room layout

Public speaking coach Lisa Braithwaite suggests visiting the location of the talk, if possible, prior to the meeting to see how the room will be laid out and to make any requests for positioning the visual aid equipment.

Braithwaite also notes that knowing more about the venue and the size of the room will give the speaker some idea as to how energetic and physical they will have to be to engage the audience, whether a microphone will be needed, and what type of visual aids will be the most effective.

3. Greet your audience at the door

If you are unable to find out much information about the audience prior to the meeting, you'll have to improvise and adjust your talk based on the information you collect at the beginning of the meeting.

Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills, suggests greeting people at the door and asking questions to ascertain their level of knowledge and expectations.

You'll also make a few friends in the beginning—and it's always nice to have friends in the room.

4. Use the Call and Response technique

Toastmasters also suggests using the "Call and Response" technique at the beginning of the talk. Frame questions at the beginning geared toward learning about the audience—find out how much experience they have with the topic and adjust the speech accordingly. Using this method, you can also gauge the mood of the audience.

If the audience seems to be in a lighthearted mood, can use humor to keep the audience interested. If they seem to be serious, or the topic is of a serious nature, get right to the meat of the talk.

When you know more about your audience and their expectations, you'll be able to tailor your talk accordingly. Your audience will be engaged and satisfied—and you will happily accept their applause.

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