The Power of Research: How Knowing your Audience can Make or Break the Perfect Speech

As a teacher of, among many other things, public speaking, I’ve come across a thousand speech topics from my students that range from the utterly banal to the improbable and illegal. These students, being in their first year of college, come from many different walks and ways of life and have increasingly divergent opinions on the same things, right down to what is a proper time on the morning to actually be awake.

One example I recall is of a student-run campaign to reform the campus policy regarding alcohol possession. While the arguments and policy options were sound, there was one major tripping point that ultimately defeated the campaign: the organizers were using the wrong rhetoric with the wrong audience. While calling the administration “unfair” among other epithets might work with the student body, the same message was directed at the administration that ultimately turned a deaf ear.

Why did this happen? Why such energy and organization go to bust? It did because the speakers performed according to what the students might want to hear, but not that of the administration. They neglected to find out what the current needs and goals of the administration were, the population factors made the current strictures necessary, and the like. Even on smaller scales, this bit of neglect can turn a great speech into a dud.

Force Alone Does Not Move a Crowd

Many speakers believe that with enough force and charisma, any information can be effectively conveyed to any audience; not true. Speakers have to know- REALLY know who they are talking to in order to break through the barrier between speaker and audience. The key here is research.

A successful speaker should know about their audience in an almost personal manner. We see politicians do this in the early days of their campaigns, whereas they visit the restaurants, watering holes, schools, and churches to gather a solid idea of what the people are thinking. When asked on general topics, many are more than willing to give their opinions. From these interactions, the candidates get a “feel” for what their audience desires, fears, celebrates, and why they do it.

There is also something to be said for research in the realm of sheer data, as the results from these investigations direct the candidate on where to go to meet their people, and the kind of topics that will be featured. This kind of interaction and research is indispensable when forming a presentation to any crowd. Many successful speakers even find ways of making unwelcome news into a palatable affair; popular politicians make this into an art form at times.

In your own presentations, there is always room for research. Find out what the audience is focused on. How do they think and feel on the subject? Ask if there’s a cultural barrier that should be reconciled in order to relate the subject matter. Don’t expect the audience to just “get it” and move on. Successful speakers relate the material as if it were the audience’s own thoughts and feelings, as if there is no space between the speaker and audience.

Before your next presentation, put a bit of thought into the hidden side of public speaking; delve into the minds of your audience. What are they concerned about? What do they want to hear? How can you structure your points and evidence so that your audience would be more receptive? Create the speech as if it came from the mouth of your audience, and they may end up speaking the same words amongst themselves.

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