My Sponsors

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Audience Size Influence Your Speaking

Next, think about how large the audience will be; try to write down a rough estimate of the numbers. There is a scale of sizes (and types) of audience, from a little group of three or four in a small office, through a seminar of twelve to fifteen in a meeting room, to an audience of forty or fifty (or even hundreds) in a large hall. The formality of the presentation will, of course, vary with the size. It is useless to have a largely written script, full of formal language, for the group of two or three in an office. An informal summary, followed by a discussion will be best for them. Equally, a heart-to-heart chat, with little structure and invitations for questions very early on, will fail in a lecture theater filled with two hundred experts. One interesting result from sociological research shows that as ‘group size increases, member satisfaction decreases.’ Speakers should, therefore, be aware of the effect of group size on the audience’s satisfaction, as well as on the speaker’s nerves. Both the ideas, and the voice which accompanies them, have to be bolder and more forceful in a large group.

Think next about the audience’s interest in the talk. It will depend on factors such as their age, their status, and their background, as well as their reasons for being there. Were they compelled to attend? What do they expect to gain from the presentation? Most audiences will have various layers of interest. They may have a primary interest in the subject of your talk, but they will also have a secondary interest in other matters, such as the group you work for, and they may have a passing interest in other areas which you talk about. You will also need to know whether they have power to do things as a result of hearing your talk. What can they do for you, or you for them, which forms a community of interest (in both the involvement, and the curiosity sense of that word)?

Considering these factors will not, of course, guarantee success. Indeed, so complex are human interrelationships that not even a team of sociologists could tease out the full niceties of an audience’s attitudes and expectations. But the speaker should not abandon attempts to be rational about his presentation, just because an audience is a complex entity. His analysis of the audience will always be imprecise. But this does not matter, because the audience will come half-way to meet the speaker. From their end of the communicative relationship they will be making the same allowances and adjustments as the speaker is making from his. Few audiences are malicious, and the speaker can count on a reserve of willingness and tolerance from them.

We should also realize that language is a very approximate medium. Even if an exact specification of the audience’s attitudes and needs could be written, the encoding of the message can only be approximate. So even a crude analysis is better than none. What is needed is protection from the grosser and more obvious mistakes. To plunge in, without having first thought about the audience, is like navigating over a reef without a map. The speaker may make it, and never know how close his or her hull came to the fangs of rock beneath. But it is just as likely that he or she will end up with a wrecked argument, and the cargo of ideas just so much flotsam washing uselessly around in the stormy minds of the audience! If that happens, the speaker has only him or herself to blame if he or she had not first charted the passage. Thinking first, even though it is approximate, is better than making mistakes. And thinking is only
complete if it is made explicit.

If you are serious about giving a good presentation, take the time to jot down your judgment of the audience as the first page of notes you make towards the presentation.