Put Your Audience in Your Speech

You’ve practiced your speech, promised yourself to make eye contact and organized your notes. You feel like you’re prepared, but there’s still one thing that might sabotage your presentation: a missing connection with your audience.

Have you ever heard the expression, “People like to hear about people?” This couldn’t hold more true than when you speak to an audience. Whether speaking to a group of 10 listeners or 10 thousand, it’s always important to keep their attention by talking about people. Adding an anecdote or two is not enough. Effective speakers know to use “people words.” This can make the difference between an audience that is confused by an onslaught of facts and an audience that jumps out of their seats crying, “I get it!”

Do you want to do that for your audience? Then follow these easy steps:

Search for “people words.” Simply stated, people words are references to human beings. They are what can make a dry subject more appealing to your audience. Start by substituting references to human beings for the abstract words so many speakers put in their speeches.

Take, for example, a common type of phrase from a technically-focused speech, “The results of the survey showed an increase in sales of 25 percent.” The facts are accurate, but you need to add someone that your audience can identify with. If you take the same sentence and, without focusing on the grammatical subject, search for a human-interest subject, you find it in “salespeople.” People increase sales, and that’s who your audience wants to connect with. So you could change the sentence to, “Our salespeople increased sales by 25 percent.”

That’s a good start, but don’t stop there. As you really begin to dig, you will discover more people hidden in that sentence. An easy way to approach this is to begin asking the “who’s” – Who did the survey? Who did the sales­people sell to? This is a quick trick that will help you find more people references. Let‘s add in some more people: “We found in our survey that our salespeople sold 25 percent more to our customers than they did last year.”

What began as a sentence with zero people words now is loaded with them. “We, our salespeople, our customers” and “they” all refer to human beings. With those simple changes, you have intrigued and involved your audience while giving them an idea of who increased those sales, who kept track of the sales,
and who did the buying. Your human-interest quotient has just skyrocketed, and your audience will more likely pay attention.

No matter what your topic may be, remember that the subject is always people. Whether you’re talking about politics, sales, economics, or the price of widgets in China – it is the people behind these topics that make them interesting. Get in the habit of scrutinizing your text for opportunities to focus on human beings instead of dry facts.

Give Those Statistics A Pulse. “Sure,” you may say, “adding ’people words’ is simple enough. But I have to use a lot of statistics. That part didn’t change in your example. How am I supposed to make statistics sound human?”

This is a common problem. On one hand you need to convey the numerical data that you spent so much time researching, and on the other you know that a speech filled with numbers can cause your audience’s eyes to glaze over. Don’t fret. If you give your statistics some thought you can find where your human-interest words are buried.

For example, let’s take the sentence, “Half of all Americans have had a brush with crime.” “Americans” is the only reference to people in that sentence.

You can warm this up by saying, “If you turn to your side, chances are, the person you’re looking at – or you – have been the victim of a crime.” Not only have you used more people words (“you, your, someone, victim”), you’ve changed an abstract reference to “crime” to an example that uses people your audience can actually see – their neighbors.


                    “Using these steps will help you bridge the distance
                    between the podium and the back row."



Finding ways to turn your cold statistics into something audience-friendly can make for entertaining speech entries. To demonstrate, look at those sales figures from the original example again. Those sales didn’t just increase by 25 percent, “Every customer that bought four widgets last year seemed to want five this year.”

Or maybe there were just more customers. “For every 100 customers who stayed with us, there were 25 new buyers who also bought our product.”

Here are some additional statistics that we’ve warmed up: “The probability of contracting a cold is 50 percent,” can be changed to, “If I’m not sneezing, you will be.” Or we could take “The number of oil rigs needing repair is 200 per 1000,” and change it to, “Our repair crews can drive past four oil rigs, but they have to stop at every fifth one and repair it.” And here’s one more: “Sales rose 33.3 percent this year,” becomes, “For every three widgets our hardworking sales team sold last year, they were able to sell four, this year.”

Just remember that statistics tend to bore people, so make an effort to show how your numbers effect real lives, real people, and if possible, your audience.

Use Body References. Another way to sneak people words into your speech is to use body references. Think about everyday actions and movements people make, and apply those words to your non-human subjects. For example, you could sink your teeth into a juicy steak, so why can’t your customer sink his teeth into a report? You could describe how a company is limping along, how your sales team is working hand-in-hand with the marketing department, or suggest that previous techniques have been frowned upon until you were able to see eye-to-eye with your clients and they loosened their grip on old ways of doing things. Find some original ways to say this and the speech will climb to new heights.

Also, don’t “turn up your nose” at the idea of using gut-wrenching expressions to shake up your audience. “Holding your tongue” because you’re afraid they will flinch might squash your chances of touching their lives.

As you can see, finding body references can be fun. People instinctively understand how their bodies work, and when you describe the workings of inanimate objects or organizations in terms of the human body, your audience is going to relate to what you are saying. So feel the heartbeat of every sentence, and you’ll make your speech easier to swallow. In literary terms, this is called a “pathetic fallacy” and suggests that nonhumans (i.e. things) act from human emotions. Used with care, this can really liven up your descriptions.

What’s Up With Those Conversational Phrases? Once you have scrutinized your speech for opportunities to humanize your sentences, you can begin to add conversational phrases that will make your thoughts easier to relate to. For some reason, many of us want to sound formal when speaking, but many audiences want to hear familiar phrases from their everyday lives.

Look at what happens when you change, “We found him compatible” to, “We decided he was someone we would like to hang out with.” Or how about making, “We did not approve of their actions” into, “”They rubbed us the wrong way?” Use familiar phrases and conversational language to make a large room feel intimate.

Play the Name Game. It’s amazing what’s in a name. Your audience doesn’t even have to know the person you are referring to, but anytime you replace labels such as, The Human Resources Manager with Jenny Wilson, you suddenly catch your listeners’ ears. You’ve made your reference about someone more familiar simply by saying her name. Continue to refer to “Jenny” throughout your speech, and you’ve just made her sound like someone they already know.

Even made-up names can work. Instead of, “Our departments were not communicating,” try, “Jim didn’t know what Bob was doing, and Sally didn’t know what Jim was doing, and Tom, Dick and Harry were out in the field oblivious to the whole problem.” Though the names are obviously fictional, they help give your listeners a human angle on the problem.

Another wonderful technique is to use the names of audience members. If you have a chance to arrive early and chat with someone before your speech, make sure to include him or her. It’s easy to slip in, “I was talking with Mary Faulkner earlier tonight, and she reminded me of something I meant to speak to you about.” Or you can refer to someone all audience members know, such as the president of their organization, Bill Smith, or even the person who introduces you. “Thank you, Ms. Williams,” says you are a people person and makes you sound like you are familiar with someone the audience knows.

Using these steps will help you bridge the distance between the podium and the back row. You’ll find people leaning forward and nodding their heads. Your fellow speakers may remark that the speech was intriguing. Many of your listeners won’t realize how you did it, but you’ll know you have mastered the art of adding human interest without losing a single point in your speech.

So before you stand up to speak, grab your pen and start hunting for those human references that will make your speech sparkle. Use the checklist below:

  • Search for opportunities to use “people words,” – words that refer to human beings. They can be as simple as pronouns, or as complex as job descriptions.
  • Warm up your statistics. Find ways to present your figures through examples that help your audience visualize the people affected by your numbers.
  • Replace abstract actions with body references. Applying human body movements to non-human subjects makes them more understandable and makes your audience more empathetic.
  • Talk like people talk. Use conversational phrases, and you will seem less distant.
  • Name names. Add a few names, and your audience will remember yours.


Kevin Johnston and Tennille-Lynn Millo are professional writers living in New York City.





How many people references should you use?

A random sampling of passages from USA Today, a publication that is considered reader-friendly, revealed that the newspaper uses between 20 to 25 people words per 100 words. The more difficult New York TImes uses eight to 10 people words per 100. A technical book on investing used five per 100. So here's a rough guide:

  • Very empathetic: 20-25 words per 100
  • Slightly formal: 8-10 words per 100
  • Slightly abstract: 1-8 words per 100
  • What the heck were you talking about? 0 words per 100

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