That sea of faces, those nudging/texting/distracted people, the eager fans, the strangers, your office colleagues. Who are they? What do they want from you? What should you know about your audience?
That was reader Emily Culbertson's question, posed on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. I think speakers have five opportunities, at minimum, to find out what they need to know about an audience. Are you making use of all of them?
- Ask the organizers. I always take the time to ask the organizers of any conference, session or meeting at which I'm speaking what I should know about the audience, especially in reference to my topic. What prompted them to put on a program with this topic? Why was I invited? What does the group expect from me? What's their level of knowledge about my topic--beginner, moderate, or expert? What are their concerns? Is this an important issue for the group? Why? If it is relevant to your topic, it may help to ask about the demographic makeup of the audience, such as age ranges and gender. And then ask the last, best question: What else should I know about this talk and this audience? to get at the answers you can't anticipate.
- Ask yourself. These questions will help shape your talk and your approach to the audience: Do I have something in common with them? Have I been or am I a member of this group? Use the answers to build in some details to your speech that are unique to the group, if you are a member, or that build a connection with your audience by sharing your commonalities.
- Ask the audience beforehand. If you know members of the group to which you're speaking, by all means, reach out to them. Anyone who lets me know they're coming to hear me speak usually gets a response email saying, "And what would you like me to cover?" or "What issues do you see on this topic?" But even if you don't know the audience, you can post a question on your blog, Facebook or LinkedIn profile or on Twitter to get a sense of what the audience might want. Some organizers use electronic registration programs to elicit audience questions, so ask your program's organizers if they do that--and get the questions in advance.
- Ask the audience in person. I often start with a quick poll of the audience--a few questions to which they can respond with just a show of hands--to gauge things like level of expertise (such as "Who's using Twitter for business purposes?" for a social media talk) or to establish a bond between the audience and myself ("Who else is here because their boss thought it would be a good idea?" or "How many mothers are in this audience?) Want to know more? Start with some Q&A before you begin your formal presentation. This is a powerful tactic that works well when the audience is likely to have a wide range of expertise or questions about your topic, and helps give you a preview of what's to come, so you can adjust your remarks. If you try this, don't answer all the initial questions--after all, your talk should do that--but let it be known that you want them all on the floor. Then open it back up to questions when you're done.
- Ask the audience afterward. If your organizers use a feedback form, by all means, read the comments to learn what else you can do next time. And don't forget the value of lingering to answer questions one-on-one. Many audience members prefer to speak privately, or to wait to contact you for a few weeks, so be open to these opportunities to ask them what they liked or wanted to see more of.