A lot of speeches begin with someone introducing you to the audience – reciting your background and qualifications, and then encouraging them to greet you warmly as you head to the microphone.

And once the applause dies down, you’re looking at a sea of people who are probably as unfamiliar to you as you are to them. Your first few lines not only have to launch your speech, but establish a rapport and some degree of trust with your audience.

But in the era of the social speech, you don’t have to speak to an audience of strangers. You can get acquainted and start the conversation days or even weeks before you break out the index cards. You probably won’t get to know everybody beforehand… but you’ll know at least some of them, and they’ll know you.

  • Start by finding out where your audience hangs out online. Are there professional groups on LinkedIn, or groups on Facebook where they get together? Is there an event or chat hashtag they use on Twitter? Do they frequent the sponsoring organization’s blog? Do they go even more old-school, with discussion forums? Are there Twitter lists or public Google+ circles that can help you discover them? (Just be sure these are public-facing spaces, and not places where participants are expecting some degree of privacy.)
  • Now that you know where to find your audience – or a chunk of it – you’ll want to introduce yourself. But before you do, listen to the public conversations they’re having. What’s the tone? What issues are high on their agendas? Who are the natural hosts and leaders in the conversations? Once you have a sense of the dynamics, then it’s time to let folks know who you are.
  • Post a message in the various venues you’ve identified. Let people know who you are, and that you’re excited that you’ll be speaking at the event. Ask who else will be attending, give everyone an idea of what you’re planning to talk about, and invite suggestions and questions. Unmarketing author and speaker Scott Stratten likes to do that through a webcam video he records before his speeches, greeting his audience and letting them know what it’s in for. They get to see who he is and get a taste of his speaking style. (You’ll find that and other fantastic Scott Stratten speaking tips in this blog post.)
  • Write a blog post referring to your upcoming speech, and dealing with one of the key themes you’ll be covering. (If it’s a theme you’ve posted on before, you can revisit a previous post with a few more thoughts.) Consider asking your audience a question, or assigning a little homework: “You’ll get a lot more out of this presentation if you can come in with a list of the three things you’d most like to try this year in your organization’s fundraising.” And include your video, if you’ve recorded one.
  • Looking for a big-picture idea of your audience’s interests or level of experience? An online poll (using a service like PollDaddy or SurveyMonkey) can allow audience members to score their skills, choose a favourite topic or place themselves on a spectrum of opinion.
  • Your host can make a big difference in the success of your outreach. Ask the event organizers to include links to your blog posts, polls and video on their blog and in their emails to attendees. (Chances are they’ll be delighted that you’re doing this. We’ll look at more ways to collaborate with your organizer in a future post.)
  • Use Twitter to announce your arrival at the event (which you’ll do early) and at the socials and networking events (which you’ll attend), using the event hashtag. Aim to meet some of the people you’ve talked with online. The face-to-face contact strengthens your online relationships, and can give you a sense of the event’s intangibles that can be invaluable in fine-tuning your presentation.
  • During your presentation, mention some of the people you’ve talked to and the conversations you’ve had. And if you’ve assigned homework beforehand, mention it and weave it into your speech — you can even call on a few of your new online contacts in the audience to read their answers. (In each case, clear it with them first; some people are happy to talk online, but squirm if they’re singled out from the stage.)

What you’ve done is to bridge your online and in-person presence with these audience members. Your speech will be better, because you’ve had the benefit of some insight into your audience’s thinking. You’ll be more at home on stage, because you know there are friends — or at least some friendly acquaintances — out in the crowd. And you’ve laid the groundwork for ongoing relationships that last long after you leave the stage.