Speak where your audience lives

I’m not talking about going to their living rooms to deliver a speech. Rather, you must understand the audience point of view.

Do you really need directions for that?

I do most of the cooking around our house, since my wife has physical limitations that keep her from standing long enough to do much of anything in the kitchen. Although I prefer making food from scratch, like many Americans, I just don’t have the time.

This morning, I made biscuits and gravy by popping a tube and heating some sausage gravy canned by Campbell’s. I noticed they actually had a recipe on the side of the can for biscuits and gravy. It amounted to this:

  1. Cook biscuits.
  2. Heat gravy.
  3. Pour gravy on biscuits.

At the time, I thought, “How ridiculous! How stupid do they think people are?” I can just imagine someone out there reading this can and saying, “Oh! That’s how they do it! I had no idea!”

On the other hand, just this week in speech class as we discussed demonstration speeches, someone pointed out the opportunity in talking about traditional craftwork, such as knitting and crochet. My parents’ generation didn’t do so much such work. My grandparents’ generation was the last to have a large proportion of people engaged in traditional handwork.

But interest in such is reviving as people seek to deal with the stresses of “always on” and high-tech. Yarn shops seems to be experiencing a resurgence, for instance, but there are relatively few people who know the “old ways” since passing it down skipped a generation.

My grandmother would never have considered biscuits from a cardboard tube. My parents used such all the time (as do I). A lot of young adults today have never even had biscuits and gravy at home. If they’ve eaten it, it came from McDonald’s or Cracker Barrel or some similar restaurant.

In that case, you might actually need directions to fix it at home.

Respect where the audience lives

When you speak to an audience, you probably speak as an expert. Things you consider obvious aren’t necessarily so to your audience.

Talk to one or two representative audience members, and find out what they know and what they don’t know about your topic. Why are they even interested in the topic? What assumptions have you made that need correcting?

I once had a student who assumed that since all the audience lived in East Tennessee, they were automatically Vols football fans. He confidently started his speech by saying, “Who all here are Vol fans?” expecting enthusiastic responses.

Three people raised their hands.

“Really?” he stammered. “Well, we’re going to be talking about (someone whose name I don’t remember–I’m not a fan either) and his potential as a linebacker for the Vols.” He proceeded to talk as if we all already knew the coaching staff, the preceding season challenges, and the season lineup. (I barely knew the coach’s name, and that was typical of that class.)

It’s easy to do basic audience research. Either adapt your speech to where the audience actually lives, or be prepared to adapt your speech on the fly as you see how the audience responds.

If they need directions, give them directions. And don’t make fun of them while you’re doing it.

What have you learned about speaking from the audience’s point of view?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.