Adapting to Your Audience and Situation
At every point in the speech making process, you need to ask yourself: “Self, what does my audience want from me?” It is the audience and situation, and not you (the speaker), that should determine the object and form of your speech.
To that end, your first goal is to meet audience expectations. Probably the most important of these is their time expectation for your speech. If you fall significantly short of that time, they will feel shortchanged. If you go significantly beyond that time, they will feel murderous. Make sure that you don’t violate the audience’s time expectation.
The next audience expectation to worry about is their topic expectation. Have they been told that you will speak on a certain topic? If so, you need to stick (within reason) to that topic. If you switch topics on them unexpectedly, even a great speech will be met with mixed reviews. People like to know what they’re getting into, and resent the “bait-and-switch”.
The final audience expectation to worry about is their tone expectation. Do they anticipate a funny speech? A deathly serious speech? Something in between? Once again, deviating significantly from their expectations will spell disaster for your speech.
Once you know what your audience expects from you, you need to learn some more about them in order to customize the speech to their needs. Of course, the standard demographic information comes in to play here, characteristics like: age, education, gender, race, occupation, economic status, and religion. These characteristics are important to know and understand because they can greatly impact a person’s experience and perspective. You need to approach your speech with the audience’s experience and perspective in mind.
At this point you also need to gather some additional information about your audience. You need to find out:
How much do they know about your topic? Will you be able to discuss advanced or technical information, or do you have to start with the basics? This can be tricky, you will lose the audience’s interest if you tell them what they already know or speak “over their heads”.
What other speakers have they heard? You don’t want to cover a topic that’s already been exhausted or step on the toes of the next speaker. If other people are speaking to this audience, it is critical to know what those other speakers are speaking on.
What are the audience member’s attitudes and motivations? Are they attending the speech by choice? If not, some extra motivation may be required (see the article on writing introductions). Are they against what you’re speaking about, neutral towards it, or for it? You must know all of this before you begin crafting your speech.