If you’ve ever talked to a real estate agent, you’ve probably heard the saying, What are the three most important factors in real estate? Location, location, location!
That is to say, aside from location, nothing else really matters. In the same vein, I’d like to suggest a new way of thinking about public speaking: What are the three most important elements of a speech? Audience, audience, audience.
Why focus on audience? It is our audience we seek to touch, to compel, to spur into action. If we don’t connect with our audience, the other elements of our speech—organization, message, tone, gesture, even our very purpose—all fall by the wayside. On the other hand, when we do connect, our audience will strive to understand us and will forgive our every fault. Audience is the “location” of public speaking.
Consider this scenario: If I were to give a speech extolling the benefits of joining Toastmasters, how would I approach it?
- If the audience was a group of students, I might talk about how developing skills and gaining confidence would help them in their presentations and group projects.
- If I was addressing a group of professionals, I might focus on how Toastmasters improves their effectiveness and careers.
- And if the audience was a group of my peers, I might stress all the fun I have at Toastmasters meetings while steadily moving toward my goals.
Although the fundamental benefits of Toastmasters are the same, identifying your audience determines the angle you take when conveying your message. If your message doesn’t resonate with your audience, they won’t care and will tune out.
You might think this is common sense —that we instinctively give people appropriate information. But as instinctive as it may be to give appropriate information in conversation, it is not the same when we sit alone preparing a speech.
Who hasn’t heard a speech by someone who had valuable information to share but hadn’t given any thought to their listeners? These speeches are “brain dumps.” They are streams of consciousness. They are boring.
We can only engage our audiences if we relate to their interests. And we can only relate to their interests when we explicitly consider who they are.
What do you want from your audience?
Once you’ve identified your audience, you have to decide what you want them to do; you have to define a purpose. It’s amazing how often people gloss over this, but articulating a strong purpose is essential if you want to deliver a strong speech.
As a teacher, I regularly work with students on papers and presentations. When I work with someone new, I always ask “What’s your purpose?” Students often respond by saying they want to explain something. Or tell something, or report something.
Well, I can tell my presentation to a wall. I can show it to my dog. To be effective, your purpose has to be about your audience. What do you want your audience to think? What do you want them to believe? What action do you want them to take?
Defining a purpose is like aiming at the bull’s-eye of a target. You may not hit the bull’s-eye, but if you aim carefully, you’ll probably at least hit the target. I’d rather narrowly miss the bull’s-eye of “getting my audience to act” than narrowly miss the vague notion of just telling them something.
Develop the conversation.
Now we get to the fun part—developing our actual speech. It’s fun because it is conversation—we get to talk with our audience. The key is to get inside the heads of your audience members and consider what they are likely to be thinking.
Let’s stay with our example of introducing people to Toastmasters. For a hypothetical audience, let’s choose a group of professionals, and for a purpose, let’s convince them that Toastmasters produces tangible results that will help them advance their careers.
“We can only engage our audience if we relate to their interests. And we can only relate to their interests when we explicitly consider who they are.”
With that in mind, I might start my presentation with a blunt statement that I think would resonate with this group:
I used to be scared silly when I had to talk in front of groups.
I know the impact such a statement can make, and the audience in my head prods me: “Tell me what you mean.” In response to that, I would continue:
Although I knew what I wanted to talk about, I didn’t know how to use my voice, I didn’t know how to pace myself, I had no idea how I was coming across, and I couldn’t remember my script … I was a disaster!
I suppose this might pique their interest and lead them to wonder, “what happened?” By responding to this and following up with more questions—and more responses —I’d step through my presentation in a logical, organized and conversational way. As I go, I could sense my audience’s need for examples to illustrate key points, notice important points that I might have missed, and recognize instances in which more (or fewer) details would help me get my point across.
This conversational approach is especially useful for overcoming “objections”—the doubts our audience has in mind and may otherwise cause them to reject everything we say. Such doubts, when discussing the benefits of Toastmasters, might include:
- Improving my public speaking would be nice, but it’s more important for me to develop my technical skills.
- I am so weary by the end of the day, I don’t have the energy to study public speaking.
- I’m too afraid.
Anticipating hard questions pulls you out of your own head and challenges you to embrace your audience’s point of view. If you properly “channel” your audience as you prepare your speech, you can predict such objections and take them in stride.
Become your audience.
There are pros and cons to actually writing out a speech. Normally I’ll write out a solid draft—not because I’ll stick to the script, but the act of writing helps me explore and work out my ideas. But writing a speech introduces problems of its own—it’s easy to get lost in a tangle of words and ideas, and the more we write and stare at our screens, the less perspective we have. Alas, I have a great solution for this: become your audience.
I have a program on my computer that reads things out loud. I have it read everything I write back to me. It isn’t only that my ear is more sensitive than my eyes at picking out grammatical mistakes and awkward wording. That is almost a side benefit. The real value of this is that it enables me to actually become my audience. As I sit listening to my words being spoken to me, I ask myself:
- Do I understand?
- Do I care?
- Do I believe?
- Are my concerns and objections being addressed?
- Am I convinced?
I listen, and I edit. And I listen and edit again, until I’m sure that my message is complete, robust and convincing.
As Toastmasters, we study all aspects of public speaking: organization, tone, gesture, vocabulary, purpose and so on. All are important, but they are all subordinate to—and driven by—our aim to connect with our audiences. For this reason, being clear about our audience is absolutely essential to delivering an effective speech.
Dan Strum is director of NY Smarts, a language school in New York City that aims to help international professionals advance their careers through mastery of the English language. “We can only engage our audience if we relate to their interests. And we can only relate to their interests when we explicitly consider who they are.”