Maintaining Surprise

When designing surveys to test an audience’s knowledge level or gauge their overall opinions and feelings about a certain topic, remember the general purpose in designing and distributing these surveys: to collect information. If, however, a survey unintentionally reveals the best parts of the speech by informing them about the topic or arousing their curiosity to the point where they pull out their phones to do a quick search, then why give the speech at all? Great surveys seek to collect information, not give away the major talking points before the presentation. Consider the following story, as told by a former COMM-101 student:

Photo of water bottles.
The “lethal” Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO).

For my speech to motivate others to act, I decided that I wanted to persuade my audience to think more critically about stories they hear in the media, but to accomplish this goal, I decided it would be best to show them how easy it is to be fooled. So, I decided to give the time-honored Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) speech. Of course, DHMO is just another name for water; however, in my presentation, I didn’t reveal that DHMO is another name for water. Instead, I continued using the acronym DHMO and described what happens when someone comes into contact with DHMO in its gaseous state (a steam burn); 2) what happens with prolonged exposure to DHMO in solid form (frostbite); and 3) how there are “secret” government pipelines that carry DHMO beneath our very feet (water mains).

After making my case for the dangers of this chemical, my audience, for the most part, was simultaneously disgusted and terrified, or at least, they were until I revealed that “Di” is the prefix for 2 and “Mono” is the prefix for 1, meaning 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom, better known as H2O or water. At that point, my case was made and my speech was successful, but that would not have happened if I had asked a question on my audience survey like “Have you ever heard of Dihydrogen Monoxide?” Someone would have looked it up, blurted it out, and the surprise would have been ruined. Instead, I asked my audience about things like their knowledge of chemistry or of Latin/Greek roots. Once I knew who those experts were, I was able to ask them to remain silent while I spoke, to maintain surprise.

This doesn’t mean the audience should not know anything about the speech’s topic after they complete the survey, rather, it serves as a reminder to make sure the survey’s purpose remains focused on collecting information, not on giving the audience too much information in advance.

Survey Analysis and Usage

Once the audience has responded to the surveys, what should the speaker do with all the data? Basic survey analysis like calculating simple averages proves quite effective to turn numbers into useful data. Tally up the total number of responses for each question, and then divide by the total number of surveys returned. Multiply this by 100, which results in the percentage for that answer. For Likert-scale questions, simply assign a number to each response along the scale to determine the audience average along that scale.
As speakers continue working on their speech, audience survey results provide them with an excellent way to let the audience know how they measure up to the rest of their peers, which can create an effective way to relate to members of the audience. In other words, it tends to keep them listening.

Photo of a person camping.
In a presentation focused on outdoor activities in the summertime, a speaker might insert a statement into the speech like, “According to my audience survey, 15 out of 18 of you like to go camping in the summer, while the remaining three would rather stay at a resort.” Information such as this can prove extremely helpful in relating the topic to specific members of the audience, but also, these statements help show people how their responses to the survey compare to others in the same audience, satisfying a natural element of curiosity.

Beyond inserting survey results into the speech, the audience survey also helps speakers more specifically tailor the information they ultimately choose to use within the speech. If the speech starts to grow beyond the scope of time allotted, then the survey provides a window into what the audience truly needs to know. For example, if a speaker only has 6–8 minutes to present and enough information for a 10–15-minute presentation, then that person could consult the survey results to determine more accurately what information to cut from the speech without negatively impacting to the central idea. Conversely, if the speaker only had enough information to make 4–6 minutes’ worth of talking time, then survey data could be used to determine what information to expand or elaborate on, based on what the audience needed to hear the most.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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