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The Key to Speaking Success: Mapping an Audience

By Chris Lundberg

Executives, entrepreneurs, and influencers make a living by convincing the folks around them to do things. Moving people is a difficult task, and there are lots of predictable roadblocks on the way to persuading an audience. But in my experience, there is one basic underlying belief that speakers often hold that gets in the way of really connecting with an audience: it is the belief that one’s own case is compelling enough on its rational merits that the audience couldn’t help but agree. Where I grew up we referred to this phenomenon (somewhat inelegantly) as “loving the smell of your own stink”–or, something more or less along those lines. Vocable has published a series of posts about the dangers of presuming that arguments stand or fall on their rational merits, arguing that it is important to complement the rational approach to argument by engaging the values and narratives that move an audience, and with concrete strategies to counteract “motivated reasoning.”

But, to really dig into the nuts and bolts of persuasion, the important thing is to understand your audience. One of the most hallowed pieces of advice in the traditions of public speaking is to know your audience. It is a maxim that goes as far back as Aristotle: when we speak, we ought to consider who we are speaking in front of: “when in Athens…praise the Athenians.” Of course, the Greek master of all things rhetoric had a much more precise definition of how to persuade: observe “the available means of persuasion in any given situation.”

What does that mean? Consider president Trump’s success with his very committed base: if that is not something that you like contemplating, consider Secretary Clinton’s, or Bernie Sanders’s sway over their equally committed bases. How is it that each of these figures can seem so persuasive to some, and so utterly unpersuasive to their detractors?

The problem for speakers is this: almost any public speaking or communication strategy consultant will tell you to think about your audience. But most of them won’t tell you how to do it.

It is more than a matter of simple taste: the answer, of course, is that different audiences demand and respond to different persuasive strategies: Trump leveraged a combination of nostalgia and anxiety paired with a studied disregard for the pieties of civic life; Clinton worked a combination of idealism and wonkish mastery of the details combined with strong claims rooted in identity; and Sanders relied on excoriation of political and financial institutions served up alongside a strong helping of class politics.

The point here is not to say any one of these strategies is right or wrong: as a rhetoric professor, I am not (professionally) interested in taking sides with candidates. I am intensely interested in analyzing if, how, and why speech strategies work (or don’t work) in front of different audiences. And once you engage the problem of different strategies working in front of different audiences–or in different situations–one basic insight emerges: there is no one universally valid way of persuading (capitals intentional) “The Audience”, there are only strategies for persuading specific audiences in specific situations.

If you do not know your audience, you are unlikely to have a good strategy: and if you do not have an explicit strategy for negotiating your audience, you are unlikely to succeed. Of course, some people will succeed by blind luck, intuition, or because the hook into a message that connects with an audience for reasons that no one could have anticipated. But on the whole, the more well considered your strategy is, the more likely you are to succeed.

On the other hand, if you strategize effectively, you can not only make sure your message hits home, but you can create all sorts of rhetorical wizardry. For example, data show that you can effectively build segmented messaging strategies that parts of your audience will hear and others won’t–an incredibly useful skill. Often pejoratively called “dog-whistling,” given the number of politicians who use the strategy to say nasty or racist things in coded language, for a corporate leader and who has to adapt to multiple and potentially interest-conflicted audiences, it is an indispensable technique (more on that in a later post).

Making your message hit its intended target, speaking dual messages to a segmented audience, and other more advanced persuasive pyrotechnics begin with an understanding of your audience. The problem for speakers is this: almost any public speaking or communication strategy consultant will tell you to that you should think about your audience. But most of them won’t tell you how to do it. Audiences are savvy–and compelling speech requires more than simple flattery. So to move an audience with intention, a speaker needs to generate a mental picture of the audience, and then to work backwards, designing a speech around that picture of the audience, and with a determinate goal in mind.

One of the most dangerous presumptions that undermines a speaker’s ability to connect with an audience is the presumption that the audience owes you their time and attention.

This is the exact opposite of how most of us think about or approach the composition of a speech. Our instinct is to decide what we want to say, and then perhaps we tinker at the margins to adapt to the audience. But in the next series of posts, we are going to discuss how to best strategize a relationship to an audience. To start with, we’ll begin with one one “best practice” for designing an effective speech or presentation: start with a picture or a conceptual map of the audience, and use this starting point as a means to “reverse engineer” a persuasive speech strategy from it. More on the engineering part later–for now, we start with the elements of a conceptual map.

So how do you go about reading or creating a picture of your audience? Here are the questions you might ask yourself to create such a map–and it might be helpful to sketch them out in advance:

1. What do I want to achieve with the audience as a whole–what is my end goal? A speech is a set of strategic choices, and the goal of these choices is to move the audience so that they change their beliefs or actions. At first, this usually seems obvious: you would like the audience to act on your pitch or support a proposal. The key is to make your goal for the audience increasingly specific in the light of the mapping questions that follow.

2. What are the relevant subsections of the audience? This part can be tricky, but careful attention here will pay off in the long run. There are a number of questions that you should ask to define the relevant subsections (listed in ascending order of importance, in our experience):

a) Demographics: what, if any, are the relevant subsections of the audience defined by characteristics like age, gender, race, time with an organization, etc. None of these may be directly relevant in a given setting, but it is useful to tick through each of the categories to see if there are any relevant demographic threads to develop a strategy around.

b) Personalities: we often advise clients to consider the types of personalities that are present in the room, particularly in smaller settings. It is often helpful to anticipate the objections of the hard nosed types, and to think about ways of engaging comparatively introverted or passive folks in conversation.

c) Roles and Interests: you have to assume that each person, particularly in a corporate setting, is acting not only on the basis of their personality and demographic characteristics but also on the basis of an institutionally defined position. And with that position comes a specific set of interests. You should account for those interests and roles, preferably by thinking about what creates a benefit or a “win” for people in different positions, or if necessary, by minimizing the potential for resistance from positions that are unlikely to support you, and maximizing the potential to build a coalition based on folks with whom you have aligned interests. One important rhetorical distinction here: there are two kinds of interests bound up in institutional positions, as any good executive knows: functional interests and role-identity interests. In other words, some segments will be more persuaded by how you present a case on the basis of a benefit to their subset of the organization (“HR will benefit from this proposal”), and others may be more persuaded by affirming the identity bound up in their role (“the sales force will appreciate the show of confidence in granting them more autonomy”).

3. What is the audience’s motive for listening on this specific occasion? One of the most dangerous presumptions that undermines a speaker’s ability to connect with an audience is the presumption that the audience owes you their time and attention. While we’d like to presume that our colleagues and people on either side of us on the organizational chart are interested listeners, the truth is that you should presume that you need to solicit the attention of the audience: a speech should be understood as an answer to a question that is pressing for your audience. Defining in advance what the audience needs, expects, or is likely to be skeptical about in a speech is a crucial for establishing value commonality with your audience. Again, some may do this out of reflex or speaking a common organizational language, but being intentional about understanding and responding to the audience’s motives for listening is a crucial way of creating value alignment, and ultimately value consensus–which data from political psychology shows is a core component of a persuasive message.

4. What are the potential constraints or objections that the audience (or sections of it) harbors? Sometimes it is painful to do, and it certainly takes mental discipline, but listing the most robust and charitable presentation of your opposition’s objections is critical to mapping an effective persuasive strategy not only because it gives you insight into your audience’s attitudes, biases and motives, but also because it sets the basic parameters for what argumentative maneuvers are likely to be logically effective.

5. What are the audience’s stylistic expectations? In other words, how do you think that the audience imagines that you will deliver the speech. In certain instances, conformity with those expectations establishes credibility (you should, for example, be celebratory or somber when the situation calls for it) but in other instances breaking stylistic conventions can redefine your relationship with an audience (for example, when a speaker establishes rapport by being unexpectedly frank). Data show that, done effectively, stylistic deviation can essentially design the character of your audience and change the conditions of their response.

If you need to a strategy for a specific audience, please e-mail us at

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