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Wouldn’t your speech be so much easier if you knew exactly who your audience was and what you needed to say to get them to do what you wanted?

It was June 2000 and Prime Minister Tony Blair had been invited to speak to an audience of 10,000 women of the volunteer-led Women’s Institute.

Blair was still popular (it would be another 3 years before Iraq). His government was working to turn around the much loved National Health Service; they had passed some pretty ground-breaking legislation like the Human Rights Act and National Minimum Wage Act, and he had signed the Good Friday Agreement, bringing an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In short, Blair probably felt he could do no wrong.

Mistaking these mild-manner middle-class ladies for mild-mannered middle-class ladies with no bite, Tony Blair thought he could use the occasion to make a typical party political speech about the values of his Labour government – he was after all (along with Bill Clinton) probably the foremost political speaker of his generation).

(no time to read this right now? Grab my free Audience Analysis checklist to use later)

On any other occasion, in front of any other audience, it might have worked.

But on this occasion, and in front of these formidable women, it was a disaster.

A few minutes in and they began to get restless; then they began to get frustrated; then they began to get angry. They whistled, jeered and slow hand-clapped the startled Prime Minister until pretty soon it was clear that this little speech had turned into a genuine PR disaster that was played and replayed across the media for years thereafter.

It was a salutary reminder of the dangers of misjudging your audience, and a lesson that all of us should do well to remember:

Do not speak unless you know who you are speaking to! (grammatically that should really say ‘Do not speak unless you know to whom you are speaking!’ but that just sounds weirdly over-formal, doesn’t it?)

If you don’t think audience analysis is important, consider this simple (Star Trek) example (I’m a trekkie, sorry!) You need help in a battle. How you ask will depend on who you’re asking:

  • Klingon (warrior race): Join me in battle for the chance of a glorious death?
  • Ferengi (capitalistic race): If we win, we will own all their property and wealth
  • Vulcan (logic race): Support us today or they’ll come after you tomorrow
  • Cardassians (ruthless race): Would you like the chance for an easy victory?
  • The Borg (cybernetic automaton race): Here’s another race to assimilate

If ever there was a silver bullet in the context of public speaking, audience analysis is it.

It takes the focus off you and switches it to your audience, which immediately relieves your nerves. It helps you work out what you need to say and how you need to say it, in order to achieve whatever goal you have set for your speech. It tells you the kind of language to use, the kind of tone to set, and even right sort of cultural references to make.

‘How to analyse your audience’ was one of the most requested topics in my public speaking questionnaire. So here, by popular request, are my thoughts on what you need to know about whom you are speaking to, so that you get a standing ovation rather than slow hand-clapping every time.


This week’s Free Download is your very own Audience Analysis checklist!

Start with this core question: What do I want my audience to think or feel, believe or do once they have heard my speech?

Answer that question and keep it in mind as you prepare your speech. It will be your North Star.

Next, consider the three key elements you must know about your audience:

Demographics of your audience

What: These are the details about who your audience actually is: e.g. age range, gender balance, ethnicity, culture, religion, wealth, education, language, occupation/profession, cultural references, personality type (extroverted or introverted, shy or bold, courteous or disruptive); are they likely to be restless, agitated, interested, bored, indifferent etc?

Why: If Tony Blair had analysed instead of ignoring his audience, he might have realised that the jam-making ladies of the Women’s Institute were also the same bold pioneers, who campaigned on women’s issues and created the famous nude photos immortalised in the film Calendar Girls.

How: Take out a pad of paper and make notes about everything important that you know about your audience e.g. age range, gender balance, wealth, language, cultural references etc. Use this week’s checklist to assist you.

Imagine you had to buy the perfect Christmas present for someone you didn’t already know. What would you want to know about them to help you figure out what they would want to receive?

Why this helps you: Knowing who they are and where they come from, helps you know how to speak their language.

When screenwriters try to create memorable characters, they first work out their backstories (e.g. where they were born, when they had their first kiss, what their favourite food is etc). Knowing who they really are and where they come from helps them write dialogue with much greater authenticity.

It is the same with speechmaking. Knowing your audience tells you everything you need to know about what they need to here; what cultural references, analogies, quotes might work best; how to structure your speech; what points you should avoid at all costs; even how long or short your speech should be etc.

Attitude of your audience

What: These are the inner thoughts and emotions of your audience (e.g. their beliefs, values, and emotions) particularly towards your subject matter.

(You guessed it, this is also covered in my free Audience Analysis checklist)

Why: If you understand implicitly what your audience’s thoughts and feelings are towards the topic of your speech, you will be far better able to address those thoughts and feelings and mould them towards your way of thinking.

How: Now that you know who your audience is (their demographics), now you have to put yourself in their shoes.

Ask yourself (and write down): what is the overall view of my audience about the topic of my speech? Do they agree with me or disagree? Do they have strong feelings or are they indifferent? Will they love what I am going to say or hate it? Do we have similar values or are they at the opposite end of the spectrum? What do they think of you? What are they expecting/hoping/fearful they will hear from me?

If you don’t already intuitively know what your audience thinks or feels on the subject, or you are concerned that your assumptions may be inaccurate, then you must research this. Make contact with as many of them as you feasibly can and speak to them about your topic. Send out a survey or feedback form using a service like surveymonkey or typeform and ask questions to get an indication of their views.

Why this helps you: Before every speech, presentation, or piece of communication, you should always ask yourself: ‘what do I want my audience to think, feel, or do because of my speech?’ This is your primary speech objective.

If you know where your audience is mentally and emotionally before you speak, you will be much clearer on what you need to say to get them to think, feel, or do what you want after your speech.

Context for your audience

What: This is the environment or context in which your speech will be given from the audience’s point of view.

For this part of the analysis, you should be working out things like: what is the occasion? how many of them will there be? How will they be seated? How far away from you will they be? Will they hear you directly or through a microphone & speakers? If you are using a slide PowerPoint will they all be able to see it? Will they see you unobstructed or will there be a podium? Will they be seated or standing? Will there be any other distractions in the venue? Will they just have eaten, be itching for food, or eating whilst you speak?

Why: A presentation to 10 people in a small room at 9am will benefit from a more intimate speaking style than a speech to 1,000 people in a grand hall at 9pm?

Context matters. How your audience will receive your speech is as much dependent on the context in which they hear it, as the content of the speech itself.

How: Make a note of context in which your audience will receive your speech.

Consider your speech from the audience’s point of view. What are the factors that will affect the way they receive your speech?

n.b. be sure to treat your audience as one whole, rather than many different individuals. Once a group of people become an audience, they take on a collective consciousness that makes them act and think largely as one. This is why audiences will generally applaud or boo as one. Our psychological need for social communion fuses us into one group.

Why this helps you: Considering the context of your speech for your audience forces you to put yourself in the shoes of your audience, and anything that helps you do that is a good thing.

If you are thinking that this all looks like hard work, that’s because it is. But is it worth it? You bet your bottom dollar/yen/naira/euro/rupee (or whatever currency my audience uses) it is!

(p.s. if you’ve got a photographic memory you probably wont need this, if not, best to download the free Audience Analysis checklist for your next speech).

Audience Analysis Checklist

Download the Free Audience Analysis Checklist to go with this article

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Kolarele Sonaike

Founder, Elevator Pitch School

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