Why and how you should get to know your audience before a speech

Before your big event, do some sleuthing to identify attendees’ pain points and preferences. Use whatever nuggets you mine to shape your message and delivery.

Gathering data on your audience before a speech

Every speech has a goal—usually it involves modifying the way your audience thinks and acts.

You can do that effectively only if you know your audience, but how is that possible when you won’t meet most of them until the day of the speech?

Fortunately, there are ways you can “meet” your audience before shaking any hands.

Determine what you want to know about your audience—and why. Everything you’re learning should be geared toward making your audience journey as smooth as possible. (That’s the audience’s journey from what they believe, know and feel now, and what you want them to believe, know and feel at the end of your speech.)

Some of what you want to know should be specific to the event itself:

  • How big is the audience likely to be?
  • How tired or energized will they be by that point in the agenda?
  • What will attendees already have heard from previous speakers?
  • Will there be dignitaries or organizations you should acknowledge?

You’ll also want to go deeper, answering questions such as:

  • What distinguishes them? What are their professional backgrounds? How diverse is your audience demographically? Will you be talking to an audience of 20-somethings, 40-somethings or 60-somethings?
  • How much does your audience know already? How informed are they on your key subjects, and how big is the gap between your least and most knowledgeable audience members?
  • How interested are they in the topic? Will you need to work hard to keep them engaged, or are they already eager to hear more?
  • How do they feel about the subject of your presentation? Will you need to overcome skepticism and hostility, or will your audience already be open to what you have to say?
  • What burning questions do they have about your topic? What are your audience members’ pain points? What do they want to achieve, and what’s standing in their way?
  • What are this audience’s affinity groups? Which professions, trades, organizations or roles do they represent? Do they have inside jokes, a common vocabulary or shared points of culture you can refer to or riff on?
  • What are the elephants in the room,and why aren’t people talking about them? Are there no-go topics, or is it worth breaking the silence? Are there some cherished but mistaken beliefs you could gently (or not-so-gently) challenge?
  • What are the red flags for this audience? What are they sick of hearing from speakers? What are the “tells” that an outsider doesn’t get what your audience is about?

Meet and greet your audience

Now that you know the information you’re looking for, let’s start tracking it down.

Start with the event organizer. Knowing the audience is part of her job, and she’ll probably be able to provide an overview of what (and whom) to expect.

There may be factors skewing an event organizer’s perceptions. For instance, she might be more vested in the sponsoring organization than the audience is. She may also be new to the position, and, if it’s a public event, she might have no way of knowing who’s likely to show up. However, the event organizer will usually be one of your best sources of intel.

Also, ask whether anyone else in the convening organization knows the audience well. The host company might have someone working in communications, marketing or stakeholder relations, for example, who’s done some research. With nonprofits, depending on the event and audience, you might want to talk to someone in membership, organization or donor relations.

Mining affinity groups

Find relevant organizations—professional associations, advocacy groups and the like—and review their websites, newsletters and online presences. Check out publications such as trade magazines that speak to the audience’s interests, and peruse the social media accounts of the influencers in the field. Look for prominent issues on your audience members’ minds. Also, note the kind of language they tend to use and the kinds of stories they like to tell.

Be mindful of where these groups congregate online, too. Surf the Facebook pages and LinkedIn groups where they gather, and research the hashtags and Twitter chats they use. Read through the conversations that unfold there, getting a sense of the topics that animate people similar to your target audience. (Just bear in mind that you’re looking at a group of people who share an affinity with your audience; they may not be representative of the people who show up at the event.)

Mine your LinkedIn contacts for people who work in a related field. Is there anyone you could call who’d have insights into how your audience thinks?

Conduct online sleuthing

Research the hashtag for your upcoming event, and jump into any conversations people are starting to have. Feel free to get the ball rolling. Let attendees know you’re excited about the event, and ask focused questions about your topic, such as:

  • “What keeps you up at night about…?”
  • “What’s your pet peeve when it comes to…?”
  • “What’s the best thing about…?”
  • “If you could change one thing about…?”

If this is an annual event, scroll through the conversation around last year’s hashtag—especially if someone spoke on a related topic. You can also look at conversations conducted around similar events.

If there’s video from past events, have a look. The presentations might offer insights, but pay special attention to the audience interactions and the questions they ask.

Putting intel into action

What should you do with all this information you’ve gathered?

These insights should profoundly shape your message, content and delivery. Use the informed assumptions you’ve developed to drive the type of journey you’ll take your audience on.

You should have a better idea of the kinds of cases, anecdotes and facts that are most likely to resonate, as well as more familiarity with language that’s likely to land. Use the intel you’ve gathered to anticipate questions, comments and objections your audience is likely to raise, and prepare responses accordingly.

Surprises are part of the alchemy of public speaking, but take it from a chemist: Fortune favors the prepared mind.

Rob Cottingham is a speechwriter, speaker and presentation coach based in Canada. A version of this of post first appeared on his blog.

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