Every speech has a goal, one that almost always involves changing the way your audience thinks and acts in some way.

You can only do that effectively if you know your audience. But just how you do that isn’t immediately obvious. You probably won’t get to meet most of them until you roll into the venue on the day of the speech.

Fortunately, there are ways you can meet your audience before you actually meet-meet them — and you can get to know your them surprisingly well. You may not use all of them, or even most of them, in every speech. But a little genuine insight into your audience can take you a long way.

So, tell me about yourself…

Of course, before you dive in, it’s a good idea to understand what you want to know about your audience, and why.

Everything you’re learning is in the service of 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 is specific to the event itself:

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

But you’ll also want to go deeper, answering questions like:

Who are you talking to? What are their professional backgrounds? How diverse is your audience demographically? Will you be talking to an audience of 20-somethings, 40-somethings, 60-somethings?

How much does your audience know already? How experienced are they? And how big is the spread 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 their pain points? What do they want to achieve, and what’s standing in their way?

What are this audience’s affinity groups — the professions, trades, organizations or roles they belong to? Do they have in-jokes, a common vocabulary or shared points of culture you can refer to and riff on?

What are the elephants in the room, and why aren’t people talking about them? Are they no-go areas, or could you do some real good by 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 their job, and chances are good they’ll be able to give you a pretty good overview of what (and who) to expect. That said, there may be a number of factors skewing their perceptions — for instance, if they’re a lot more vested in the sponsoring organization than the audience is. They may be new to the position, and if it’s a public event, they may not know who’s likely to show up. But for the most part, the event organizer will be one of your best sources of intel.

And ask if there’s anyone else in the convening organization who’d know the audience well. They may 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 also want to talk to someone in membership, organization or donor relations.

Remember those affinity groups? Find their organizations — professional associations, advocacy groups and the like — and check out their websites, newsletters and online presences. Check out publications like trade magazines that speak to their interests and the social media accounts of the influencers in the field. Look for the issues on their minds, the kind of language they use and the kind of stories they like to tell.

Look for the places those affinity groups like to meet online: the Facebook and LinkedIn groups and pages where they congregate, and the hashtags and Twitter chats they use. Read through the conversations that unfold there, getting a sense of the topics that animate them and their underlying culture. (Just bear in mind that you’re probably looking at a group of people who share an affinity with your audience; they may not be representative of the people who actually show up at the event.)

And mine your LinkedIn contacts for people who work in a related field. Is there anyone you could call for a short conversation, who’d be likely to have some insights into how your audience thinks?

Have a look at the hashtag for this event and any social presence the event has, and the conversations people are starting to have there. Chances are good things are only just getting underway — so maybe you want to get the ball rolling. (This is best coming from the speaker rather than the speechwriter, of course.) Let them know you’re excited about the event, and ask them a focused question about your topic: “What keeps you up at night about…” or “What’s your pet peeve when it comes to…” “What’s the best thing about…” “If you could change one thing about…”

Do a little time traveling. If this is an annual event, look at the conversation around last year’s hashtag, especially if someone spoke on a related topic. No luck? Look at conversations around similar events. And if there’s video from those past events, have a look — not so much at the presentations themselves, but the audience interactions and the questions they ask.

Actionable intelligence

And now that you know your audience, what will you do with the information you’ve gathered?

The biggest impact is shaping your message and content. You’ll have informed assumptions about the knowledge and experience base your audience has, and the attitudes and beliefs they’re coming in with. That will let you map the journey you’ll take your audience on.

You’ll also have a good idea of the kinds of cases, anecdotes and facts most likely to help them move along that journey — what they’ll find compelling as well as what you should avoid.

You’ll be able to use some of the same language they do. The goal isn’t to sound like you’re one of them — audiences can tell when you aren’t being authentic — but to communicate in a way that feels as natural and comfortable to them as it does to you.

And you’ll be able to anticipate some of the questions, comments and objections they’re likely to raise… and know well in advance how you’ll respond.

None of that means your audience won’t have any surprises in store for you — surprises are all part of the alchemy of public speaking. But it does mean that when those surprises come up, you’ll be a lot more prepared to handle them.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash