Previously, we talked about how speakers (or their staff) need to negotiate a reasonable speaking time with their hosts. It’s part of going into every speaking engagement with your own agenda: a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and the circumstances you need to do it.

A huge part of defining your agenda is knowing what you can realistically accomplish – and to know that, you need to know your audience.

One of my favourite thinkers on intellectual property issues, Lawrence Lessig, once wrote about a speech that he calls a total failure:

I’ve just arrived in South Africa after speaking in Norway. I had been invited by Kopinor to participate in their 25th Anniversary. My speech was a classic reminder that audience is everything. I count it as a total failure….

The audience hated it. They hated me. My view was “naive” one speaker said. An American representing one of the rights societies was just about as rude as one could be.

Knowing your audience beforehand — their values, prejudices, expectations, hopes, fears, interests, demographics, affiliations — can be the key to knowing just how much, and how little, you can hope to achieve in a speech.

That knowledge can also expand the boundaries of what’s possible. Knowing your audience gives you the opportunity to find common ground at the outset, and frame your themes and arguments in ways they can at least relate to, if not agree with.

That’s especially vital when you’re speaking to people who are hostile to you or your point of view. Often with that kind of audience, you aren’t aiming to move minds so much as to open them a little.

And here’s one particularly vital thing to know about your audience: what have they heard before listening to you? If the last speaker just delivered a stinging indictment of everything you stand for, you have a different job ahead of you than if that speaker offered a balanced assessment of the debate.

I wasn’t at Prof. Lessig’s speech, and I don’t know the audience in question at all. But his surprise at just how hostile they were suggests that he might have had more luck if he’d had a clearer idea of their mindset going into his speech.

I also wonder if it was as much of a failure as he thinks. In a room full of people whose minds are made up, maybe the best he could have achieved was to reach just a few of them, and encourage them to think a little differently about creative economies. From the comments that follow his blog post, I’d say he succeeded.

Incidentally, you can judge for yourself. The comments on Prof. Lessig’s post include links to video clips of his speech.

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