Chapter Six – Analyzing your Audience

In contemporary public speaking, the audience that you are addressing is the entire reason you are giving the speech; accordingly, the audience is therefore the most important component of all speechmaking. It cannot be said often or more forcefully enough: know your audience! Knowing your audience—their beliefs, attitudes, age, education level, job functions, language, and culture—is the single most important aspect of developing your speech strategy and execution plan. Your audience isn’t just a passive group of people who come together by happenstance to listen to you. Your audience is assembled for a very real and significant reason: they want to hear what you have to say. So, be prepared.

Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation. – Robert H. Schuller

We analyze our audience because we want to discover information that will help create a bond between the speaker and the audience. We call this bond “identification.” Aristotle loosely called it “finding a common ground.” This isn’t a one-way process between the speaker and the audience; rather, it is a two-way transactional process. When you ask an audience to listen to your ideas, you are inviting them to come partway into your personal and professional experience as a speaker. And, in return, it is your responsibility and obligation to go partway into their experience as an audience. The more you know and understand about your audience and their psychological needs, the better you can prepare your speech and your enhanced confidence will reduce your own speaker anxiety.[1]

This chapter is dedicated to understanding how a speaker connects with an audience through audience analysis. This analysis comes through 1) the situational analysis, (2) the demographic analysis, (3) the psychological analysis, (4) the multicultural analysis, and (5) the topic interest and prior knowledge analysis. Additionally, when collecting information about an audience, this is accomplished through direct observation, analysis by inference, and data collection.[2]


Lecture audience. Photo by ICSA. [20]

Approaches to Audience Analysis


Situational Analysis

The situational audience analysis category considers the situation for which your audience is gathered. This category is primarily concerned with why your audience is assembled in the first place.[3] Are they willingly gathered to hear you speak? Have your audience members paid to hear you? Or are your audience members literally “speech captives” who have somehow been socially or systematically coerced into hearing you? These factors are decisively important because they place a major responsibility upon you as a speaker, whichever is the case. The entire tone and agenda of your speech rests largely upon whether or not your audience even wants to hear from you.

Many audiences are considered captive audiences in that they have no real choice regarding the matter of hearing a given speech. In general, these are some of the most difficult audiences to address because these members are being forced to listen to a message, and do not have the full exercise of their own free will. Consider for a moment when you have been called to a mandatory work meeting. Were you truly happy to listen to the speaker, in all honesty? Some might say “yes,” but usually most would rather be doing something else with their time. This is an important factor to keep in mind when preparing your speech: some people simply do not want to listen to a speech they believe is compulsory.


bored students

Untitled by Konrad-Adenauer-Gemeinschaftshauptschule Wenden. CC-BY-NC-SA.



The voluntary audience situation, in stark contrast, is completely different. A voluntary audience is willingly assembled to listen to a given message. As a rule, these audiences are much easier to address because they are interested in hearing the speech. To visualize how this works, reflect upon the last speech, concert, or show you’ve chosen to attend. While the event may or may not have lived up to your overall expectations, the very fact that you freely went to the occasion speaks volumes about your predisposition to listen to—and perhaps even be persuaded by—the information being presented.

Sometimes audiences are mixed in their situational settings, too. Take the everyday classroom situation, for instance. While students choose to attend higher education, many people in the college classroom environment sadly feel as if they are still “trapped” in school and would rather be elsewhere. On the other hand, some students in college are truly there by choice, and attentively seek out knowledge from their teacher-mentors. What results from this mixed audience situation is a hybrid captive-voluntary audience, with those who are only partially interested in what is going on in the classroom and those who are genuinely involved. You literally get to hone your speech skills on both types of audiences, thereby learning a skill set that many never get to exercise. You should begin this wonderful opportunity by considering ways to inform, persuade, and humor a mixed situation audience. Think of it as a learning occasion, and you’ll do just fine.

Demographic Analysis

The second category of audience analysis is demography, or when you consider all of the pertinent elements defining the makeup and demographic characteristics of your audience.[4] From the Greek prefix demo (of the people), we come to understand that there are detailed accounts of human population characteristics, such as age, gender, education, occupation, language, ethnicity, culture, background knowledge, needs and interests, and previously held attitudes, beliefs, and values. Demographics are widely used by advertising and public relations professionals to analyze specific audiences so that their products or ideas will carry influence. However, all good public speakers consider the demographic characteristics of their audience, as well. It is the fundamental stage of preparing for your speech. Table 6.1 shows some examples of demographics and how they may be used when developing your speech. Of course, this is not an all-inclusive list. But it does help you get a good general understanding of the demographics of the audience you will be addressing.


Speaker at Wiki Conference 2011

“Wiki Conference 2011” by Sucheta Ghoshal. CC-BY-SA.

Consider for a moment how valuable it would be to you as a public speaker to know that your audience will be mostly female, between the ages of 25 and 40, mostly married, and Caucasian. Would you change your message to fit this demographic? Or would you keep your message the same, no matter the audience you were addressing? Chances are you would be more inclined to talk to issues bearing upon those gender, age, and race qualities. Frankly, smart speakers shift their message to adapt to the audience. And, simply, that’s the purpose of doing demographics: to embed within your message the acceptable parameters of your audience’s range of needs.


This, of course, raises an extremely important ethical issue for the modern speaker. Given the ability to study demographic data and therefore to study your audience, does a speaker shift the message to play to the audience entirely? Ethically, a speaker should not shift the message and should remain true to their motives. Only you will be able to alleviate the tension between your need to adapt to an audience and the need to remain true to form.[5]

Oftentimes, you will know the demographics of your class, simply because you have been around your classmates for some time. However, when this information is not known beforehand, this information is gathered by the questionnaire sampling method, and is done formally before a speaking event. Examples of questionnaires are in the next section on data collection.


Table 6.1: Tailoring a Speech to Demographic Characteristics
Demographic Characteristics Do’s and Don’ts
Ethnicity Don’t try to use words or phrases to “cuddle up” to one race or another. You would lose some credibility if you made a point in your speech and then said, “So get jiggy with it” or “You could enjoy that with your afternoon tea ceremony.”[6]
Age Stay away from jargon from one age range or another, like “OMG” or “the cat’s pajamas”[7]
Sex/Gender Use words that are not sex/gender specific. Instead of policeman, fireman, and stewardess, use police officer, firefighter, and flight attendant. Do not use one sex/gender pronoun, like assuming a teacher is a “she” and a dentist is a “he.”[8]
Income Some people in your audience will have more money than others. If you keep fit by maintaining membership in a prominent gym and you take classes there also, don’t assume everyone else can afford to do so. You can tell your audience what you do but give them options like parking far from the store and working out with a yoga or Pilates CD at home.
Occupation Unless you are speaking at a convention where everyone in your audience works in the same field, make your speech more explanatory. Your audience has not had extensive training in medical terms nor legal terms. So you need to explain what you are talking about, without using the big words which would make your audience feel confused, stupid, and put down.
Religion Realize that your audience will likely have a wide variety of religions represented, and some people may have no religious or spiritual beliefs. So, you can say that you choose to read the Bible every night for 10 minutes, but do not suggest that everyone choose a religious reading for pre-sleep relaxation.[9]
Education Level Even if you are speaking to an audience of college freshmen, not everyone has had the same educational experiences. For example, some of the people in your class may have completed a high school equivalency program like the GED, some may be high school students who are taking a college class, some may have gone to secondary school in another country, some may have been homeschooled, and some may have gone to a private honors-based prep school. You need to be careful not to talk down to your audience and not to use fancy sentences and words to try to impress your audience. Gauging the right level of communication for your speech is an important challenge.

Psychological Analysis

Unless your selected speech topic is a complete mystery to your audience, your listeners will already hold “attitudes, beliefs, and values” toward the ideas you will inevitably present. As a result, it is always important to know where your audience stands on the issues you plan to address ahead of time. The best way to accomplish this is to sample your audience with a quick questionnaire or survey prior to the event. This is known as the third category of audience analysis, or psychological description. When performing a description, you seek to identify the audience’s attitudes, beliefs, and values.[10]They are your keys to understanding how your audience thinks.


In basic terms, an attitude is a learned disposition to respond in a consistently favorable or unfavorable manner with respect to a person, an object, an idea, or an event.[11]Attitudes come in different forms. You are very likely to see an attitude present itself when someone says that they are “pro” or “anti” something. But, above all else, attitudes are learned and not necessarily enduring. Attitudes can change, and sometimes do, whereas beliefs and values do not shift as easily. A sample list of attitudes can be found in Table 6.2.

Table 6.2: Examples of Attitudes
Anti-affirmative action
Pro-/Anti-capital punishment
Pro-/Anti-free trade
Pro-/Anti-corporate tax cuts

These are just a small range of issues that one can either be “for” or “against.” And, while we are simplifying the social scientific idea of an attitude considerably here, these examples serve our purposes well. Remember, attitudes are not as durable as beliefs and values. But, they are good indicators of how people view the persons, objects, ideas, or events that shape their world.


Beliefs are principles[12]or assumptions about the universe.

Beliefs are more durable than attitudes because beliefs are hinged to ideals and not issues. For example, you may believe in the principle: “what goes around comes around.” If you do, you believe in the notion of karma. And so, you may align your behaviors to be consistent with this belief philosophy. You do not engage in unethical or negative behavior because you believe that it will “come back” to you. Likewise, you may try to exude behaviors that are ethical and positive because you wish for this behavior to return, in kind. You may not think this at all and believe quite the opposite. Either way, there is a belief in operation driving what you think. Some examples of beliefs are located in Table 6.3.

Table 6.3: Examples of Beliefs
The world was created by God.
Marijuana is an addictive gateway drug.
Ghosts are all around us.
Smoking causes cancer.
Anyone can acquire HIV.
Evolution is fact, not fiction.
Marijuana is neither addictive nor harmful.
Ghosts are products of our imagination.
Smoking does not cause cancer.
Only high-risk groups acquire HIV.


A value, on the other hand, is a guiding belief that regulates our attitudes.[13] Values are the core principles driving our attitudes. If you probe into someone’s attitudes and beliefs far enough, you will inevitably find an underlying value. Importantly, you should also know that we structure our values in accordance to our own value hierarchy, or mental schema of values placed in order of their relative individual importance. Each of us has our own values that we subscribe to and a value hierarchy that we use to navigate the issues of the world. But we really aren’t even aware that we have a value hierarchy until some of our values come in direct conflict with each other. Then, we have to negotiate something called cognitive dissonance, or the mental stress caused by the choice we are forced to make between two considerable alternatives.

For example, let’s assume that you value “having fun” a great deal. You like to party with your friends and truly enjoy yourself. And, in this day and age, who doesn’t? However, now that you are experiencing a significant amount of independence and personal freedom, you have many life options at your disposal. Let’s also say that some of your close personal friends are doing drugs. You are torn. Part of you wants to experience the “fun” that your close friends may be experiencing; but, the more sane part of you wants to responsibly decline. In honesty, you are juxtaposed between two of your own values—having “fun” and being responsible. This real life example is somewhat exaggerated for your benefit. Realize that we make decisions small and grand, based on our value hierarchies. Some basic values common to people around the world can be found in Table 6.4.

Table 6.4: Examples of Values
Inner harmony Enjoyment Belonging
Friendship Trust Equality
Control Family Security
Peace Wisdom Tradition
Unity Achievement Power
Generosity Conformity Intelligence
Leadership Creativity Responsibility
Health Independence Loyalty

Values aren’t buses… They’re not supposed to get you anywhere. They’re supposed to define who you are. – Jennifer Crusie

Multicultural Analysis

Demography looks at issues of race and ethnicity in a basic sense. However, in our increasingly diverse society, it is worthy to pay particular attention to the issue of speaking to a multicultural audience. Odds are that any real-world audience that you encounter will have an underlying multicultural dimension. As a speaker, you need to recognize that the perspective you have on any given topic may not necessarily be shared by all of the members of your audience.[14]Therefore, it is imperative that you become a culturally effective speaker. Culturally effective speakers develop the capacity to appreciate other cultures and acquire the necessary skills to speak effectively to people with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Keep these in mind when writing a speech for a diverse audience.


Many people speak different languages, so if you are translating words, do not use slang or jargon, which can be confusing. You could add a visual aid (a poster, a picture, a PowerPoint slide or two) which would show your audience what you mean – which instantly translates into the audience member’s mind.[15]


Remember that in many cases you will be appealing to people from other cultures. Do not assume that your culture is dominant or better than other cultures. That assumption is called ethnocentrism, and ethnocentric viewpoints have the tendency to drive a wedge between you and your audience.[16]


Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged. – Rumi


Not only do individuals have value systems of their own, but societies promote value systems, as well. Keep in mind the fact that you will be appealing to value hierarchies that are socially-laden, as well as those that are individually-borne.

Communication Styles

While you are trying to balance these language, cognition, cultural, and value issues, you should also recognize that some cultures prefer a more animated delivery style than do others. The intelligent speaker will understand this and adapt his or her verbal and nonverbal delivery accordingly.

Interest and Knowledge Analysis

Audience laughing

“25th March 2011” by Grace Flora. CC-BY-NC-ND.

Finally, if the goal of your speech is to deliver a unique and stirring presentation (and it should be), you need to know ahead of time if your audience is interested in what you have to say and has any prior knowledge about your topic. You do not want to give a boring or trite speech. Instead, you want to put your best work forward, and let your audience see your confidence and preparation shine through. Additionally, you don’t want to make a speech that your audience already knows a lot about. So, your job here is to “test” your topic by sampling your audience for their topic interest and topic knowledge. Defined, topic interest is the significance of the topic to a given audience; often related to the uniqueness of a speaker’s topic. Likewise, topic knowledge is the general amount of information that the audience possesses on a given topic. These are not mere definitions listed for the sake of argument; these are essential analytical components of effective speech construction.

Anyone who teaches me deserves my respect, honoring and attention. – Sonia Rumzi


Unlike multicultural audience analysis, evaluating your audience’s topic interest and topic knowledge is a fairly simple task. One can do this through informal question and answer dialogue, or through an actual survey. Either way, it is best to have some information, rather than none at all. Imagine the long list of topics that people have heard over and over and over. You can probably name some yourself, right now, without giving it much thought. If you started listing some topics to yourself, please realize that this is the point of this section of this module; your audience is literally thinking the same exact thing you are. Given that, topic preparation is strategically important to your overall speech success.

Again, do not underestimate the power of asking your audience whether or not your topic actually interests them. If you find that many people are not interested in your topic, or already know a lot about it, you have just saved yourself from a potentially mind- numbing exercise. After all, do you really want to give a speech where your audience could care less about your topic—or even worse— they know more about the topic than you do yourself? Not at all! The purpose of this section is to help you search for the highly sought-after public speaking concept called uniqueness, which is when a topic rises to the level of being singularly exceptional in interest and knowledge to a given audience.

We know that you wish to excel in giving your speech, and indeed you shall. But first, let’s make sure that your audience is engaged by your topic and hasn’t already heard the subject matter so much that they, themselves, could give the speech without much (if any) preparation.

One final note: There’s an old adage in communication studies that reasons: “know what you know; know what you don’t know; and, know the difference between the two.” In other words, don’t use puffery to blind your audience about your alleged knowledge on a particular subject. Remember, there is likely to be someone in your audience who knows as much about your topic, if not more, than you do. If you get caught trying to field an embarrassing question, you might just lose the most important thing you have as a speaker: your credibility. If you know the answer, respond accordingly. If you do not know the answer, respond accordingly. But, above all, try and be a resource for your audience. They expect you to be something of an expert on the topic you choose to address.

Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly. – Robert McKee


So now you may be saying to yourself: “Gee, that’s great! How do I go about analyzing my particular audience?” First, you need to know that there are three overarching methods (or “paradigms”) for doing an audience analysis: audience analysis by direct observation, audience analysis by inference, and audience analysis through data collection. Once you get to know how these methods work, you should be able to select which one (or even combination of these methods) is right for your circumstances.

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life. – Marcus Aurelius


Direct Observation

Audience analysis by direct observation, or direct experience, is, by far, the simplest of the three paradigms for “getting the feel” of a particular audience. It is a form of qualitative data gathering. We perceive it through one or more of our five natural senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Knowledge that we acquire through personal experience has more impact on us than does knowledge that we learn indirectly. Knowledge acquired from personal experience is also more likely to affect our thinking and will be retained for a longer period of time. We are more likely to trust what we hear, see, feel, taste, and smell rather than what we learn from secondary sources of information.[17]

All you really need to do for this method of observation is to examine your audience. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this before speaking to your audience, you will be able to gather some basic reflective data (How old are they? What racial mix does this audience have? Does their non-verbal behavior indicate that they are excited to hear this speech?) that will help you arrange your thoughts and arguments for your speech.[18]

One excellent way to become informed about your audience is to ask them about themselves. In its most basic form, this is data collection. Whenever possible, have conversations with theminteract with members of your audience—get to know them on a personal level (Where did you go to school? Do you have siblings/pets? What kind of car do you drive?) Through these types of conversations, you will be able to get to know and appreciate each audience member as both a human being and as an audience member. You will come to understand what interests them, convinces them, or even makes them laugh. You might arouse interest and curiosity in your topic while you also gain valuable data.

For example, you want to deliver a persuasive speech about boycotting farm-raised fish. You could conduct a short attitudinal survey to discover what your audience thinks about the topic, if they eat farm-raised fish, and if they believe it is healthy for them. This information will help you when you construct your speech because you will know their attitudes about the subject. You would be able to avoid constructing a speech that potentially could do the opposite of what you intended.

Another example would be that you want to deliver an informative speech about your town’s recreational activities and facilities. Your focus can be aligned with your audience if, before you begin working on your speech, you find out if your audience has senior citizens and/or high school students and/or new parents.

Clearly this cannot be done in every speaking situation, however. Often, we are required to give an unacquainted-audience presentation. Unacquainted-audience presentations are speeches when you are completely unfamiliar with the audience and its demographics. In these cases, it is always best to try and find some time to sit down and talk with someone you trust (or even several people) who might be familiar with the given audience. These conversations can be very constructive in helping you understand the context in which you will be speaking.

Not understanding the basic demographic characteristics of an audience, or further, that audience’s beliefs, values, or attitudes about a given topic makes your presentation goals haphazard, at best. Look around the room at the people who will be listening to your speech. What types of gender, age, ethnicity, and educational- level characteristics are represented? What are their expectations for your presentation? This is all-important information you should know before you begin your research and drafting your outline. Who is it that I am going to be talking to?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? – Albert Einstein


Audience analysis by inference is merely a logical extension of your observations drawn in the method above. It is a form of critical thinking known as inductive reasoning, and another form of qualitative data gathering. An inference is when you make a reasoned tentative conclusion or logical judgment on the basis of available evidence. It is best used when you can identify patterns in your evidence that indicate something is expected to happen again or should hold true based upon previous experiences. A good speaker knows how to interpret information and draw conclusions from that information. As individuals we make inferences—or reasonable assumptions—all the time. For example, when we hear someone speaking Arabic, we infer that they are from the Middle East. When we see this person carrying a copy of The Koran, we infer that they are also a follower of the Muslim faith. These are reasoned conclusions that we make based upon the evidence available to us and our general knowledge about people and their traits.

When we reason, we make connections, distinctions, and predictions; we use what is known or familiar to us to reach a conclusion about something that is unknown or unfamiliar for it to make sense. Granted, of course, inferences are sometimes wrong. Here’s a familiar example: You reach into a jar full of jelly beans, and they turn out to be all black. You love black jelly beans. You reach back into the jar and take another hand full, which turn out to be, again, all black. Since you can’t see the jelly beans inside the jar you make an assumption based on empirical evidence (two handfuls of jelly beans) that all of the jelly beans are black. You reach into the jar a third time and take a hand full of jelly beans out, but this time they aren’t any black jelly beans, but white, pink, and yellow. Your conclusion that all of the jelly beans were black turned out to be fallacious.

Data Sampling

Unlike audience analysis by direct observation and analysis by inference, audience analysis by data sampling uses statistical evidence to quantify and clarify the characteristics of your audience. These characteristics are also known as variables,[19]and are assigned a numerical value so we can systematically collect and classify them. They are reported as statistics, also known as quantitative analysis or quantitative data collection. Statistics are numerical summaries of facts, figures, and research findings. Audience analysis by data sampling requires you to survey your audience before you give your speech. You need to know the basics of doing a survey before you actually collect and interpret your data.

If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk. – Robert Baden-Powell

Basic Questionnaire

There are a great number of survey methods available to the speaker. However, we will cover three primary question types within the basic questionnaire because they are utilized the most. The basic questionnaire is a series of questions advanced to produce demographic and attitudinal data from your audience.

Man with clipboard

“Man With a Clipboard” by Elizabeth M. CC-BY.

Clearly, audience members should not be required to identify themselves by name on the basic questionnaire. Anonymous questionnaires are more likely to produce truthful information. Remember, all you are looking for is a general read of your audience; you should not be looking for specific information about any respondent concerning your questionnaire in particular. It is a bulk sampling tool, only.

While you can easily gather basic demographic data (examples of demographic questions are shown in the chart following this section), we need to adjust our questions a bit more tightly, or ask more focused questions, in order to understand the audience’s “predispositions” to think or act in certain ways. For example, you can put an attitudinal extension on the basic questionnaire (examples of attitudinal questions are shown in Figure 6.1).

These questions probe more deeply into the psyche of your audience members and will help you see where they stand on certain issues. Of course, you may need to tighten these questions to get to the heart of your specific topic. But, once you do, you’ll have a wealth of data at your disposal that, ultimately, will tell you how to work with your target audience.


Likert-type Testing

Figure 6.1: Examples of Survey Questions
Demographic Questions

  1. Academic level in college
    1. freshman
    2. sophomore
    3. junior
    4. senior
  2. Marital status
    1. single
    2. married
    3. divorced
    4. widowed
  3. Age
    1. less than 18 years old
    2. 18–30 years old
    3. 31–45 years old
    4. over 46 years of age
Attitudinal Questions

  1. I regard myself as
    1. conservative
    2. liberal
    3. socialist
    4. independent
  2. I believe that abortion
    1. should be illegal
    2. should remain legal
    3. should be legal only in cases of rape
    4. not sure
  3. I think that prayer should be permitted in public schools
    1. yes
    2. no
    3. undecided
Likert-Type Questions

Indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with each question.

  1. Unsolicited email should be illegal.
    Strongly Agree   1   2   3   4   5   Strongly Disagree
  2. Making unsolicited email illegal would be fundamentally unfair to businesses.
    Strongly Agree 1 2 3 4 5 Strongly Disagree
  3. I usually delete unsolicited email before even opening it.
    Strongly Agree 1 2 3 4 5 Strongly Disagree


The final method of ascertaining audience attitudes deals with Likert-type testing. Likert-type testing is when you make a statement and ask the respondent to gauge the depth of their sentiments toward that statement either positively, negatively, or neutrally. Typically, each scale will have 5 weighted response categories, being +2, +1, 0, -1, and -2. What the Likert-type test does, that other tests do not do, is measure the extent to which attitudes are held. See how the Likert-type test does this in the example on “unsolicited email” in Figure 6.1.

A small Likert-type test will tell you where your audience, generally speaking, stands on issues. As well, it will inform you as to the degree of the audience’s beliefs on these issues. The Likert-type test should be used when attempting to assess a highly charged or polarizing issue, because it will tell you, in rough numbers, whether or not your audience agrees or disagrees with your topic.

No matter what kind of data sampling you choose, you need to allow time to collect the information and then analyze it. For example, if you create a survey of five questions, and you have your audience of 20 people complete the survey, you will need to deal with 100 survey forms. At high levels such as political polling, the audience members quickly click on their answers on a webpage or on a hand-held “clicker,” and the specific survey software instantly collects and collates the information for researchers. If you are in a small community group or college class, it is more likely that you will be doing your survey “the old-fashioned way”–so you will need some time to mark each individual response on a “master sheet” and then average or summarize the results in an effective way to use in your speechwriting and speech-giving.





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