Who’s Your Audience?

Most speakers want unanimous approval, a standing ovation and all the advantages that accrue from a successful speech. Yet speakers often sabotage themselves in their quest to connect. Sometimes they inadvertently alienate or even polarize an audience through ill-conceived remarks or lack of sensitivity. The results? Lukewarm receptions, sparse applause and in the case of contests, a seat outside the winner’s circle.

Speakers often presume that audiences share their belief systems, values or political preferences. Sometimes it’s because their audience members look like they do, or because in their city, most people do share beliefs. But often looks belie reality. You cannot read people’s hearts or minds. When you presume, you run the risk of offending audience members without even knowing it.

We’ve all listened to speakers who presumed everyone in the room voted for the same candidate in the most recent national or local election, or that everyone in the club shared their belief about an upcoming holiday, or their stance on a war or national policy. It often turns out the audience’s opinion is far from unanimous.

Speaking In the Lion’s Den

Sometimes we find ourselves speaking to an audience with different beliefs, perspectives or experiences. In Canada you might be:

  • A lone Conservative speaking to an audience of Liberals, or vice versa
  • A manager speaking to employees
  • A Québécois speaking in Alberta
  • A woman speaking to an all-male audience

Internationally, you may find yourself across a fence from an audience for a variety of reasons:

  • A Muslim speaking to a Christian audience, or vice versa
  • An Aborigine speaking to Australians of English heritage
  • A Korean speaking to a largely Japanese audience

In each case, there may be differing customs, values and even accents. To ignore such differences would be like ignoring an elephant in the room. The lack of acknowledgement would distract from your actual message. The wise approach is to acknowledge differences in a respectful way.


Think for a moment about the way Toastmasters often open their speeches: “Madam Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and most welcomed guests.” This opening is designed to include all who may find themselves in your audience, and it welcomes each. That’s good! We want to similarly cast a wide net when speaking to audiences who may be skeptical, doubtful or reluctant to embrace our message because of their own background, disposition or past experiences. Craft your opening to engage all, especially those who may be in the minority in terms of gender, religion, age or political preference.

Reputations Help and Hinder

Imagine a speaker who grew up and resides in Berkeley, California – home of the University of California, and the free speech movement, protests and riots of the 1960s. Was the speaker a part of the riots of the late ’60s? Not if they were only seven years old at the time! They were probably busy selling lemonade on the corner like any child of that age. Yet some audiences presume that all people from Berkeley are long-haired hippies who are rebels, radicals and draft dodgers with no respect for authority. Some in the audience may dislike the speaker before they’ve spoken a word, based on reputation.

The Olive Branch

The best speeches are inclusive, bringing audiences together or else offering something for multiple perspectives, beliefs or preferences. In cases where you are speaking to a hostile or opposing party, praise them! It will disarm them. You can kill them with kindness. When you are conciliatory or otherwise generous with your acknowledgement, their respect for you grows. By being magnanimous, you show yourself worthy of further consideration.

A Toast to Differing Tastes

A great, if exaggerated, example of catering to multiple factions within an audience can be found in the famous “Whiskey Speech” of Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat Jr. Delivered to the Mississippi legislature on April 4, 1952, this speech takes a stand on the controversial prohibition topic of legalizing liquor (then illegal in that state). In successive paragraphs he appears to be either pummeling or praising the effects of alcohol. He seemingly appealed to both sides while maintaining his neutrality. Though his speech takes political doublespeak to comic proportions, the lesson remains: Know your audience and give something of value to all.

Appealing to Our Commonalities

When speaking to audiences who appear to be different from you, seek out your commonalities and build upon them. For instance, you may be speaking to an audience comprised predominantly of people whose political beliefs are opposite yours, and this is known to all. Your opening greeting may begin “Good evening friends and fellow citizens.” Indeed you are all citizens. This is why many speeches given by United States presidents begin with, “My fellow Americans…” Other things you may have in common: you are all taxpayers, voters and members of Toastmasters. Look for common ground to launch your speech and you and your audience will start the journey together.

For the Benefit of a Few

You may speak about an event, experience or phenomenon that most – but not everyone – knows, understands or is familiar with. Consider the phrase “blue moon.” Rather than assume everyone knows it, or worse yet, asking: Is there anyone here who doesn’t know what a “blue moon” is? Explain if for all: “For those of you unfamiliar with expression ‘once in a blue moon,’ it refers to the second moon in a month, a rare occurrence.” You might phrase it simply: “…it was as rare as a blue moon.” That way you don’t embarrass, demean or ostracize the person who doesn’t understand or hasn’t been versed in your history, points of reference or colloquialism. Few people wish to admit in a crowd that they don’t understand something.

Insights on Inside Jokes

Another way speakers alienate their audiences is through excessive use of inside jokes or references to events or knowledge known by some – but not most – of the audience. Your goal is to help everyone feel like an insider. Too many references to people or topics not known to most audience members estrange them from the speaker. Help people feel included, not excluded.
So leave the insider jokes out.

Tips for Better Knowing Your Audience

  • Learn about your audience before you speak. Ask questions, meet them informally, use polls, surveys and questionnaires. Google “online survey service” to find companies that will help you set up Web surveys.
  • Meet your audience members on the way into the room. Chat with them one-on-one and in small groups to learn more about them and identify commonalities.
  • Use the technique of “Call and Response” to engage and include your audience. “How many of you have children? (Wait for response.) How many of you are children?” (Wait for laughter!)
  • Include your audience through generous eye contact that shows you see them as individuals.
  • Speak to an audience member in the front, the middle and the back; speak to people on the left, the right and in the center. Vary where you direct your remarks.
  • Remember, the shortest distance between people is often a smile. When you smile at someone, they should smile back.
  • If you’re from out of town, reference something local about the town, region or province.
  • Topical references often connect you with your audience. Reference, for example, the local weather (which we all experience), the traffic jam on the way to the program, a recent event or other common experience. But be careful to reference something that’s truly universal within your audience.

Remember, you’re not a speaker without an audience. They are the most valuable people in the room. Speaking is a collaborative experience. Share the spotlight with them and they’ll respond appreciatively! When you unite your audience, your applause will be unanimous!

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