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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Think Your Audience First: The First Priority For Successful Speaker

Thinking about the audience is the first stage in preparing to give a successful talk or presentation. They are the recipients of the information; it must be selected and tailored for their needs. They are also the people whose presence will make you nervous when you speak, whose reactions will depress or encourage you, and whose judgment will measure your success or failure.

When you are thinking about this audience, you must remember, too, that they are active, not passive, participants. They are not empty jugs, sitting waiting for you to pour information into their ears. They have attitudes, interests, likes and dislikes of their own. So the speaker has a personnel management role; he or she has to deal with people and not just with facts. He must not only dole out the information, but anticipate difficulties, deal with problems, to smooth the whole process. So what does a speaker need to know about his audience?

Firstly, he or she should be aware that all audiences have some of the qualities of a crowd. An audience is a group of individuals, many of whom the speaker may know personally, yet collected together they acquire a new personality. When individuals are collected in a room, in enforced silence, all facing one other individual, the speaker, they change. For instance, it is obvious to anyone who watches an audience that their emotions, such as laughter, boredom, and enthusiasm, are both stronger and more sustained.

Every group, even a small and decorous collection of familiar colleagues, displays some of the qualities the sociologists call ‘crowd phenomenon’. W.J.H.Sprott, in his book Human Groups, writes:

‘There is general agreement that a person who is a full member of a crowd…is likely to behave differently from the way he would behave if he were by himself.’ The differences of behavior can be summed up in two ways. The first is that there is a heightening of emotionality. The man in the presence of danger feels frightened; in the presence of other people experiencing and showing the same emotion, his fear is even stronger. The second way is that people in a group have a reduced sense of responsibility, less critical sense, and weaker self-control.

There has been much research to try to determine why it should be that people in groups behave less responsibly than individuals. Miller and Dollard point out that as we grow up we are rewarded when we act in the same way as other people act, and punished for nonconformity. The result is that we are taught to accept leadership from others. People in crowds often behave in ways which they would consider reprehensible if they were alone. The crowd becomes their ‘super-ego’.

There is no doubt, then, that a group of people is different from an individual, or even two or three people. Hopefully, no speaker during his regular work as manager, administrator, or scientist is likely to encounter a lynching-mob. But he should not forget that every group is tinged with the crowd phenomenon. Collections of people must be treated with care.

The care is best expressed by spending time thinking about exactly who they are, and what they want. Most speakers have a fair idea of what sort of audience they have to face. They know, for instance, if a group is likely to be hostile or welcoming. But many speakers do not think long enough, or clearly enough, about their audience. Cumbersome though it seems, I believe strongly that thinking about the audience should be done on paper. The effort of writing explicit answers will crystallize half perceived ideas.