Tweak Your Speech: Audience First

I am entering my fourth year of teaching public speaking and presentations; I’ve recently discovered that, as a student of a subject that fascinates me, I spend quite a bit of time analyzing public speaking situations. I like to observe how people perform under pressure, how they work to calm their own nerves enough to let their words and vision fly. I also find myself watching a crowd of listeners, observing positive and negative feedback, gauging the level of engagement, and analyzing potential sources of noise.

Thursday night, I attended an excellent reading series featuring several of my work colleagues. It was an excellent opportunity for some in context audience analysis, and it got me thinking about the importance of audience analysis as a starting point to any strong presentation. We tend to relegate audience analysis to the realm of the obvious. I often hear students tell me that their audience is “everyone” or that they don’t really think it’s that important to conduct an audience survey; I’ve heard individuals even say that this is a subject that they feel uncomfortable teaching, as if they are telling their audience something they already know. However, after 10 years of teaching, I have learned that nothing that we assume is common sense is actually applied and understood by most people.

In class on Wednesday, we discussed Duarte’s Presentation Ecosystem. I emphasize to students the importance of taking care with this ecosystem, to consider how each part of a presentation helps create balance and homeostasis in a presentation.

Endicott's Three-legged Stool of presenting is made up of message, visual story, and delivery.

I ask them to examine how this ecosystem flows and how each major component is supported by a myriad of processes and steps. Something that they often find surprising is that the first step in developing one’s message is in-depth audience analysis.

Duarte's diagram for the three legs of a presentation is a starting point for students of a new slide ideology.

Instead of moving right into ideation and writing out ideas, effective presenters begin by developing a relationship to the target audience. Our words are meaningless without an audience. It is the audience that takes the message, internalizes it, disseminates it to others. As Derek Sivers illustrates in this brief TED talk, it’s the guy who says, “yeah, that crazy dance looks fun” that actually starts a flash mob.

A great starting point to understanding audience is understanding how communication works. In Slide:ology, Duarte uses the example of Mark Templeton, CEO of Citrix Systems, who credits his study of communication as the most important element to his success in Citrix.

As a Citrix user, I can appreciate how difficult it is to truly convey what this company does to the average user.

A presentation, though we may feel is a passive one sided communication context, is a two way transaction, an interchange between audience and presenter, a flow between signal and noise.

There are several key parts of this process, but understanding the importance of noise and feedback are key in analyzing an audience and what best reaches them, and adapting to audience feedback in the moment.

Noise can come in many forms. Some noise is external–loud air conditioning, frigid room, flickering lights. Some noise is internal–the speaker’s anxiety about being judged harshly, the audience’s lack of interest in the topic. Duarte identifies several more types of noise in Resonate:

A strong presenter understands the role of noise in a presentation; a strong presenter adapts and works through the noise. But, a strong presenter cannot identify points of noise and best strategies for eliminating noise if he or she does not devote significant time pre-speech and during speech to in-depth audience analysis. Developing a relationship with your audience before presenting, understanding what is going to generate positive feedback is a pivotal starting point for presenters. Your audience is the living conveyor of your message; they take your ideas and carry them out to the world.

The ultimate purpose of this communication transaction? To achieve shared meaning between speaker and audience. Ken Burke calls this identification.

Another mark of a presenter who truly puts audience first is adaptability to feedback. A strong presenter recognizes when an audience’s attention is waning, when they have built a wall of resistance against a particular idea, and how to break down that wall and regain momentum.

Great presenters are adaptive--they know how to read and react to audience feedback.

A strong presenter is a constant audience analyzer who adapts the approach and message based on feedback.  One brilliant strategy companies have developed to keep both audience members and presenters on their toes is the stand up meeting. In this rapid-fire PechaKucha-style of daily meeting, participants get together for short meet ups lasting about 15 minutes. Really excellent stand ups, according to Jason Yip, contributor at Martin Fowler.com, provide a good start to the day, focus on improvement of a team or project, reinforce the importance of focus, develop team building skills, and communicate the current status of a project–all while participants stand up.

So why standing up? Well, we often tend to ignore those less than subtle clues from our audience that they’ve had enough (fidgeting, texting, shuffling papers, spacing out). However, when participants are standing, it is nearly impossible to ignore this all important feedback that indicates your audience has had enough.

So, whether you use the stand up method or your own method for audience analysis before and during a speech, remember that a presenter is nothing without ideas that resonate; it’s the audience who turns ideas to action. Know thy audience!

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5 thoughts on “Tweak Your Speech: Audience First

  1. […] To Read: slide:ology by Nancy Duarte; Chiara Ojeda’s article “Tweak Your Speech: Audience First” […]

  2. Nancy Duarte says:

    Great post! Thank you so much.

    • Thank you for your feedback and insights, Nancy. My students are working on audience needs personas for their upcoming Pecha Kucha’s. They seem to resist going this in-depth with audience, but the peer review I’ve implemented post-presentation helps them see how well cultivating a healthy relationship prepares them for positive feedback!

  3. […] fits in with your experience, your passions, and your audience’s needs, it’s time to  analyze your audience, and then develop a central theme, thesis, or big idea to guide the presentation development […]

  4. […] I am entering my fourth year of teaching public speaking and presentations; I've recently discovered that, as a student of a subject that fascinates me, I spend quite a bit of time analyzing public…  […]

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