Question Time – 1

How do you do know when you have thought enough about your audience and how do you know that you have done it…or more likely not?

VT – Edinburgh

Very good question! It’s all well and good to say “think about your audience” and something entirely different to do it. How do we know when we have gotten it right?

Well, one piece of advice I got from my own speaking coach was this: if your audience are bored, it isn’t their fault. In other words, if they’re snoring, you’re boring! So, one easy way to check that you have done your homework properly is to check the reaction of your audience. Do they seem engaged or lost? Are they learning forwards in anticipation of what you will say next or are they looking for their pillows?

Of course, most talks will fall in-between these two extremes but audience-reading is a vital skill. Once you get away from your notes and spend a decent amount of time watching the people who are watching you, you suddenly become aware of all sorts of cues that let you know whether you have won them over or not. Something as subtle as smiles creeping over people’s faces or something as obvious as a laugh in the right place can give you all the information you really need.

So, when you are doing your talk, the best way to tell if you have thought about them enough is simply to read their body language. Watch for signs of engagement: leaning forward, taking notes, smiles, nods, even signs of shock. The more you do talks, the better you get at spotting these signs and even making little adjustments to suit the reaction you are getting.

Still, if you let it get that far until you think about your audience, you will be missing out on a whole lot. Rewinding back to your preparation stages, the amount of time you spend finessing your talk can say a lot about how much you are thinking about your audience. Simply put, if you find yourself adjusting or even removing parts because “it won’t work with this audience” then you are part of your way there. If you get to the stage of deliberately planting audience-specific jokes or anecdotes then you are really on your way.

As far as preparation goes then, you know you are thinking about your audience when you have deliberately gone out of your way to use your knowledge of them to make the talk better. You should be asking yourself questions like: Who are this audience? What do they need to hear? Which bits of my talk will be of most interest? Which bits can I drop out?

But how do you get to know your audience in the first place? For those of us who present to similar audiences on a regular basis, this isn’t a problem. We can meet people one-on-one and figure it out from there. For those times when you are presenting to a new audience, research gets a little trickier.

For truly unknown audiences, spending time finding out about their (national or corporate) culture, reading what they read and listening to previous talks is a good start. If you aren’t first to speak, watching how the audience responds to other speakers will give you a lot of ideas too (this is something I will cover in detail in a later post). Finally, if all else fails, mention something you observed about them or about their place where you are speaking. There is a good reason why so many speakers talk about the journey over to a place. It’s a cliché but it’s still a good one.

The final indicator of how you have done is in the question time that follows so many talks, especially in academia. A good rule of thumb is that the more and better the questions, the better the job you have done. Good talks lead to good questions. You know when you have done enough when you get invited to speak again, short of that, good responses and on-going interest after the talk tell you that you have done a great job.

Well done. Now for the next talk…

Do you have a question about public speaking that you would like answered? Drop me a line using the contact page above!



About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in Audience, Public Speaking, Question Time. Bookmark the permalink.

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