The word “data” might conjure an image of an accountant’s office or a research laboratory filled with beakers and vials for some, but data comes in non-numerical forms. Data concerning numbers and statistics is considered quantitative, but it also comes in qualitative forms, which include facts, stories, and observations. Collecting meaningful, purposeful data about an audience in relation to a speech topic is part science and part art. Planning and critical thinking play a large role in succeeding in this endeavor.
Before creating a means to gather data, decide on what data matters for the speech. Knowing information about the audience’s demographics, or the most basic and quantifiable characteristics of a population of people, could prove most useful. Data on demographics (see sidebar for examples) can greatly enhance the crafting of an effective message. Why do any of these characteristics matter?
Gender and sex do not necessarily mean the same thing, and knowing the difference can make or break certain speech topics. Sex refers to the biological differences that make a person male or female, while gender refers to masculine or feminine qualities evident within a person of either sex. To determine how sex makes a difference to a speech topic, consider the following situation:
Jill is scheduled to speak to an audience made up of 18 women and 2 men. Her speech topic concerns early detection for breast cancer. Given that the sex breakdown of the room is 90% women and 10% men, the majority of her speech’s information will likely be directed toward the women in the room, but at the same time, she absolutely must find a way to make a portion of her information appeal to the men in the room, such as by talking about how 1 in 1,000 men will get breast cancer, or how a man can assist a female partner with early detection measures. If she doesn’t find a way to include the men in this conversation, then their attention spans will likely fade early in the presentation. By speaking inclusively and inviting men into the conversation using information that directly impacts them, she has acted as an effective audience-centered speaker.
Age represents another important demographic factor, because each generation learns and grows in different environments. Opinions and knowledge levels on a particular subject may vary greatly from one generation to the next.
For example, an informative speeches outlining the dangers of social media delivered to two different audiences, one to parents of high school students and another to the high school students themselves, would likely get arranged in different ways. The parents of high school students might need to hear more background information before the speaker covers the dangers of social media, whereas the experiences of the students themselves (who grew up as “digital natives” and used social media for the better part of their lives) allow the speaker to immediately explore the topic with much more depth.
Sex and age may represent more outward characteristics that seem relatively easy in most cases to spot without a lot of effort, but what about socioeconomic background, and how does this demographic affect the speech preparation process? Socioeconomic background refers to one’s position in society relative to others, which many will identify as “middle class,” “impoverished,” or “wealthy.” Others may also refer to their position among the working hierarchy, such as “blue collar” or “white collar.” To illustrate this point, consider the following student’s example:
Had the speaker, in this case, known her audience’s background, rather than assuming a homogenous (like-minded, with similar backgrounds) one, she could have provided more appealing options, thus inviting the whole audience into her presentation, which would have prevented losing listeners due to alienation or exclusion.
Lastly, a speaker must also know the intricacies of culture for a particular audience. A speaker discussing law enforcement abuses will cover information one way with a predominantly Caucasian audience and another way with an audience with a higher representation of minorities due to vastly differing viewpoints for each audience, but will ideally maintain the integrity of that message with both. Additionally, regional cultural expectations (e.g., a New York audience compared to an audience in Atlanta) can vary greatly, as will multinational audiences, so it pays for a speaker to prepare based on intercultural knowledge, as well as individual audience member characteristics. Delivering a message that meets cultural expectations and respects cultural norms and customs can earn a speaker the respect and admiration of that audience, regardless of message content.
While demographics offer a great place to start, speakers often need more detailed information about their audiences to achieve success. They can use both passive and active methods to gather information.
You need to deliver a rousing persuasive speech in front of the city council. How might you go about learning more about each member? You could start with a simple web search. Visit the city council’s web page to read about each of the individual members, especially if they plan to vote on the issue you came to address. Learn about their individual priorities, their backgrounds in the community, and even how they have voted in the past. Use this information to tailor your message to match those needs (this book discusses persuasive strategies in Chapters 11 and 12). However, in addition to this research-based approach, you could simply show up early to the meeting and try to talk to various people. Learn about this specific audience by listening to the various conversations, or by talking to people who know this audience well.
Pretend you just got hired as a communication consultant for a relatively large organization. How would you learn about the company to effectively perform your job? You might look through the organization’s website, but also, could search local papers and other news outlets for stories and press releases about the organization. This will lead to finding examples of various practices and activities the organization has conducted. This technique also works to prepare for a job interview. Interviewing the supervisor or human resources manager of an organization can also help you gather information about the organization. These key people can provide demographics, behaviors, knowledge, attitudes, and interest levels of the targeted audience.
The more speakers know and the more they can speak specifically toward topics and information that various audiences find important, the greater rapport, or connection, they can generate.