Make Your Speech All about the Audience
Steven D. Cohen is a leading expert on persuasive communication and effective presentation skills. He is an instructor at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education and holds a faculty appointment at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
The key to delivering a successful speech is showing your audience members that you care about them. You don’t want listeners to view you as a salesperson pitching a product. You want them to see you as a leader who has their best interests at heart.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a mind reader to build a strong connection with the audience. Instead, you can focus on analyzing the audience, using inclusive pronouns, referencing the present, and highlighting the benefits.
Analyze the Audience
Before you can lead your audience, you must know your audience. You must figure out what your audience members care about and why they should listen to you. The best way to gather this information is to conduct an audience analysis.
To begin this process, consider asking the event organizer about the people who will be in attendance. What do they hope to learn? How can you help them achieve their goals? You also can search the Web for recent news stories or social media posts to learn more about the group’s interests and priorities. Once you understand what your listeners care about, you can tailor your message to their specific needs.
Every semester, I challenge my students to conduct an audience analysis to make their speeches resonate with their peers. One student described his classmates as a small global gathering that includes young and old, female and male, undergraduate and graduate students. “To say we are united by public speaking is too broad; the class includes both those who fear [public speaking] and those who relish it,” wrote the student. “We are united specifically by our belief that it is important.”
This analysis is effective because the student is able to connect his own beliefs with the audience’s beliefs. The student acknowledges the tremendous diversity of the audience, but doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, he focuses on what unites everyone in the room—the belief that public speaking is important.
Remember to conduct a thorough audience analysis—even when you’re pressed for time. The information you gather will help you determine how to get and keep your audience’s attention.
Use Inclusive Pronouns
One of the easiest ways to bond with your audience is to use inclusive pronouns like we, our, and us instead of you and your. As Shel Leanne points out in the book, Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision, these words help to “send the message that the speaker and those listening are on the same team, in the same boat, facing the same fate.”
I often use inclusive language when telling my students about upcoming speech assignments. When students express concern about delivering a speech, I say: “I know speaking in public can be nerve-racking, but we’re all in this together. We’ve prepared for this moment for the past few weeks, so I know we have what it takes to deliver amazing speeches.” Although I personally may not deliver a speech, I want my students to know that I am on their side. Using inclusive language helps me demonstrate that I care about my students and understand what they are facing.
There is a big difference between saying, “You must solve this problem” and “We must solve this problem.” The first statement makes the audience responsible for solving the problem; the second implies that the speaker will work with the audience to solve the problem. Don’t tell your listeners what they should do. Instead, use inclusive language to explain what you all can accomplish together.
Reference the Present
Another way to connect with your audience is to reference the present. Although listeners may think about the past and future during your speech, they will spend most of their “thinking time” trying to link your ideas to their current needs and challenges. Think about the issues your audience currently faces and find ways to address those issues during your speech.
Let’s say you are invited to give career advice to a group of college seniors preparing for end-of-semester exams. What could you say to make the students listen to you? Here is one possibility:
I know you’re looking forward to finishing your finals so you can hang out with your friends and enjoy the summer. I was a college student not too long ago. I know how it is. But I hope we can talk for just a few minutes about one simple question: “What’s next?” Today, I want to offer some suggestions to help you use what you’re studying to land a great job.
This introduction is compelling because it connects the topic of your speech to the students’ current, primary concern—studying for finals. Initially, the students may not want to think about their postcollege plans, but they will be more apt to listen once you demonstrate that you “know how it is” and you’re willing to help.
Highlight the Benefits
A final technique is to highlight the benefits of supporting a particular idea. According to Nick Morgan, author of Before You Open Your Mouth: The Keys to Great Public Speaking, speakers must keep their audience members’ needs top of mind:
Audiences begin speeches asking “why”—why should I care, why is this important … If the speaker is successful—and it’s a million to one shot against—the audience will end up asking “how”—how do I implement this idea, how do I make this my own … That’s the speaker’s job: take the audience from “why” to “how.”
Let’s say you are speaking to a group of colleagues about volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Everyone knows that helping the homeless is important. Nevertheless, you are more likely to make your message resonate if you emphasize the specific benefits of volunteering. You could say:
I invite you to join me at our local shelter to prepare lunch for some of the homeless people in our community. This is a perfect opportunity for us to get to know one another and do something to make us feel good about ourselves. I’m pretty sure we’ll laugh a lot as we figure out how to run the kitchen!
In this example, the speaker highlights the benefits of participating, rather than emphasizing that volunteering at the shelter is the “right thing to do.” Who wouldn’t want to have a great time while serving the community?
Your listeners will pay attention if you make your speech all about them—so be sure to keep the audience at the forefront of your mind. If you maintain an audience-centered approach, your listeners will reward you with appreciation and applause.