4.1 – The Importance of Audience Analysis
According to this author, rule number one of communication is “know your audience and put them first.” Communication begins and ends with the audience; if the audience did not receive or understand the message, then the communication failed. The best way to ensure that a message has been received and understood is through audience analysis.
This chapter will look at the audience from both sides of the lectern, so to speak. First it will examine how a presenter can fully understand the audience, which will aid the speaker in constructing the approach and content of the speech. Secondly, this chapter will examine the public speaker as audience member and how to get the most out of a speech, even if the topic does not seem immediately interesting.
4.2 – Demographic Characteristics
The term audience analysis means looking at the audience first by its demographic characteristics and then by their internal psychological traits. Demographic characteristics describe the outward characteristics of the audience. This textbook will discuss 11 of them below, though you might see longer or shorter lists in other settings.
Before we get to the demographic categories, however, be careful about stereotyping, which is generalizing about a group of people and assuming that, because a few people in that group have a characteristic, all of them do.
At the same time, one should not totalize about a person or group of persons. Totalizing is taking one characteristic of a group or person and making that the “totality” or sum total of what that person or group is. Totalizing often happens to persons with disabilities, for example; the disability is seen as the totality of that person or all that person is about. This can be both harmful to the relationship and ineffective as a means of communicating.
Avoiding stereotyping and totalizing is important because you cannot assume everything about an audience based on just one demographic characteristic. Only two or three might be important, but in other cases, several demographic characteristics matter. The age of a group will be important in how they think about investing their money, but so will the socio-economic level, career or profession, and other factors.
Second, in terms of thinking about demographic characteristics, not all of them are created equal and not all of them are important in every situation. When parents come to a PTA meeting, they are concerned about their children and playing the important role of “parent,” rather than being concerned about their profession. When senior citizens are thinking about how they will pay for their homes in retirement years, their ethnicity probably has less to do with it as much as their age and socio-economic level.
There is one more point to be made about demographic characteristics before they are listed and explained. In a country of increasing diversity, demographic characteristics are dynamic. People change as the country changes. What was true about demographic characteristics—and even what was considered a demographic characteristic—has changed in the last 50 years.
What follows is a listing of 11 of the more common demographic characteristics that you might use in understanding your audience and shaping your speech to adapt to your audience.
In North American culture, we have traditionally ascribed certain roles, behaviours, motivations, interests, and concerns to people of certain ages. Young people are concerned about career choices; people over 60 are concerned about retirement. Most people go to college from the age of 18 to about 25. People 50 years old have raised their children and are “empty nesters.” These neat categories still exist for many, but are largely outdated. Most post-secondary classrooms have a student who is in their 40s or older; many people aged 50+ still have children living at home. These stereotypes are problematic, even if they more often true than not.
Therefore, knowing that your audience’s average age is 18, 30, 55, or 70 is important, but it is just one of many factors.
The second demographic characteristic commonly listed is gender. This area is open to misunderstanding as much as any other. In almost all cases, you will be speaking to a mixed audience, which may include people of more than two genders, so you will have to keep all groups in mind. Yes, there are more than two genders; this topic is complex and, while not the focus of a public speaking course, demands attention and sensitivity. Increasingly, people will state their pronouns in the signature block of an email or on a name tag at a conference. Respect everybody; use their pronouns correctly; be mindful of gender sensitivities in the audience.
Generalized differences in communication between people of various genders have led to much material for comedians and YouTube videos and much discussion and soul-searching. In some ways, these differences are traditional and some writers are trying to help others avoid stereotyping.
More people now than ever openly identify as a gender other than male or female. Even those who identify as strictly male or female do not fully follow traditional gender roles. This is an area of increasing sensitivity. At the same time, the purpose, subject, and context of the speech will probably define how and whether you address the demographic characteristic of gender.
Age and gender are the two main ways we categorize people: a teenaged boy, an elderly lady, a middle-aged man, or a young mother, as examples. There are several other demographic characteristics, however.
Race, Ethnicity, Nationality and Culture
Race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture are often lumped together; at the same time, these categorizations can be controversial. We will consider race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture in one section because of their interrelationship, though they are distinct categories. Most social scientists today reject the idea of race as a biological reality altogether and see it as a social construct. This means it is a view of humanity that has arisen over time and affects our thinking about others.
Unfortunately, dividing these categories and groups is not that easy and these categories are almost always clouded by complicated political and personal concerns, which we do not have time or space to address here. Most audiences will be heterogeneous, or a mixture of different types of people and demographic characteristics, as opposed to homogeneous, very similar in many characteristics (a group of single, 20-year-old, Indigenous female business students). Therefore, be sensitive to your audience members’ identification with a culture. For example, far too many people are often guilty of confusing language categories with cultures and being oblivious to differences, ranging from subtle to what should be painfully obvious.
Be mindful of the sensitivities associated with these topics and take time to meaningfully understand and appreciate the differences involved, being especially sensitive to those populations that have been colonized, marginalized, oppressed, or otherwise discriminated against.
Religion, casually defined as beliefs and practices about the transcendent, deity, and the meaning of life, can be thought of as an affiliation and as a life commitment. On the other hand, a person may have an affiliation with a religious group, but have no real commitment to it. The teachings and practices of the group, such as a denomination, may not affect the personal daily life of the member.
Likewise, someone who has an affiliation may develop their own variations of beliefs that do not match the established organization’s doctrines. Unless the audience is brought together because of common faith concerns or the group shares the same affiliation or commitment, religious faith may not be relevant to your topic and not a central factor in the audience analysis. As with other categories, be careful not to assume or stereotype about religious groups.
Religion, like ethnicity and culture, is an area where you should be conscious of the diversity of your audience. Not everyone worships in a “church” and not everyone attends a house of worship on Sunday. Not everyone celebrates Christmas the same and some do not celebrate it at all. Inclusive language, which will be discussed in Chapter 10, will be helpful in these situations.
Without getting into a sociological discussion, we can note that one demographic characteristic and source of identity for some is group affiliation. To what groups do the audience members predominantly belong? Sometimes it will be useful to know if the group is mostly in a particular political party, members of a union, members of a professional organization, and so on. In many cases, your reason for being the speaker is connected to the group identity. Again, be mindful of what the group values and what binds the audience together.
Region, another demographic characteristic, relates to where the audience members live. We can think of this in two ways. Large countries have regions: Atlantic Canada, the Territories, the Praries, and so on. These regions can be broken down even more, such as the Gulf Islands or the Niagara Peninsula. Many are very conscious of their province or community and identify with it a great deal.
The second way to think about region is as “residence” or whether the audience lives in an urban area, the suburbs, or a rural area. If you live in the city, you probably do not think about being without cell phone or Internet service, but many people in rural areas do not take those for granted. The clubs that students in rural high schools belong to might be very different from the clubs a student in a city would join.
Occupation may be a demographic characteristic that is central to your presentation. For the most part, people choose their occupations based on their values, interests, and abilities. As people associate with colleagues in their occupation, those values, interests, and abilities are strengthened. You are probably in college to enter a specific career that you believe will be economically beneficial and personally fulfilling. We sometimes spend more time at work than any other activity, except sleeping. Messages that acknowledge the importance, diversity, and reasons for occupations will be more effective. At the same time, if you are speaking to an audience with different occupations, do not use jargon from one specific occupation.
The next demographic characteristic is education, which is closely tied to occupation and is often, though not always, a matter of choice. Education usually reflects what kind of information and training a person has been exposed to, but it does not necessarily reflect intelligence. Having a certain credential is supposed to be a guarantee of having learned a set of knowledge or attained certain skills. Some people, especially employers, tend to view a credential, such as a university degree, as a sign of achievement, maturity, worldliness, and learning (though one can complete a degree with only limited doses of any of those, I’m afraid). People are often proud of their educational achievements, so they should be noticed.
Socio-economic level (sometimes socio-economic status), another demographic characteristic, is also tied to occupation and education in many cases. We expect certain levels of education or certain occupations to make more money. These norms can be significantly thrown off, however, by inheritance (or lack thereof). While you cannot know the exact pay of your audience members, you should be careful about references that would portray your own socio-economic level as superior to their own.
Casually noting ownership of a luxury car or even a detached house would not make a good impression on someone in the audience who cannot afford a car and is economically compelled to live with roommates they can’t stand. Keep in mind some people work long, hard hours at very low wages; they are intelligent, hardworking, and deserving of respect. Too often, people with higher incomes or more inheritance view such people by unfair and punishing stereotypes, congratulating themselves for the hard work that earned them their wealth (without accounting for the benefits of their family’s money), but believing that people who earn less in their jobs must be lazy (despite how hard they actually work).
The next few demographic characteristics are more personal and may not seem important to your speech topic, but then again, they may be the most important for your audience. Sexual orientation is a characteristic not listed in speech textbooks 40 years ago. As acceptance of people of various sexual orientations and lifestyles becomes more common and expected, these differences will lead to people feeling free to express who they are and not be confined to traditional gender roles or stereotypes.
Family status, such as whether the audience members are married, single, divorced, or have children or grandchildren may be very important to the concerns and values of your audience and even the reason the audience is brought together. For example, young parents could be gathered to listen to a speaker because they are concerned about health and safety of children in the community. Getting married and/or having a child often creates a major shift in how people view the world and manage their priorities. A speaker should be aware if she is talking to single, married, divorced, or widowed persons and if the audience members are parents, especially with children at home.
All that Diversity!
Does this section on demographic characteristics leave you wondering, “With all this diversity, how can we even think about an audience?” If so, do not feel alone in that thought. As diversity increases, audience understanding and adaptation becomes more difficult. To address this concern, you should keep in mind the primary reason the audience is together and the demographic characteristics they have in common—their common bonds. For example, your classmates may be diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, or religion, but they have in common occupation (all students) and region (living near or on the campus), group identity (students in the same class) as well as, possibly, other characteristics.
4.3 – Psychographic Characteristics
Whereas demographic characteristics describe the “facts” about the people in your audience and are focused on the external, psychographic characteristics explain the inner qualities. Although there are many ways to think about this topic, here the ones relevant to a speech will be explored: beliefs, attitudes, needs, and values.
Daryl Bem (1970) defined beliefs as “statements we hold to be true.” Notice this definition does not say the beliefs are true, only that we hold them to be true and as such they determine how we respond to the world around us. Stereotypes are a kind of belief: we believe all the people in a certain group are “like that” or share a trait. Beliefs are not confined to the religious or political realms, but touch all aspects of our experience.
Beliefs are hard to change, but perhaps more so based on each level of these characteristics:
- stability—the longer we hold them, the more stable or entrenched they are;
- centrality—they are in the middle of our identity, self-concept, or “who we are”;
- saliency—we think about them a great deal; and
- strength—we have a great deal of intellectual or experiential support for the belief or we engage in activities that strengthen the beliefs.
Beliefs can have varying levels of stability, centrality, salience, and strength. An educator’s beliefs about the educational process and importance of education would be strong (support from everyday experience and reading sources of information), central (how they make their living and define their work), salient (they spend every day thinking about it), and stable (especially if they have been an educator a long time). Beliefs can be changed, but it is not a quick or easy process.
The next psychographic characteristic, attitude, is closely related to beliefs. Attitude is defined as a stable positive or negative response to a person, idea, object, or policy (Bem 1970) and comes from experiences, peer groups, beliefs, rewards, and punishments.
Do not confuse attitude with “mood.” Attitudes are stable; if you respond negatively to Brussels sprouts today, you probably will a week from now. That does not mean they are unchangeable, only that they change slowly and in response to certain experiences. Changing attitudes is a primary task of public speakers because attitudes are the most determining factor in what people actually do. In other words, attitudes lead to actions and, interestingly, actions lead to and strengthen attitudes.
Values are goals we strive for and what we consider important and desirable. However, values are not just basic wants. A person may want a vintage sports car from the 1960s and may value it because of the amount of money it costs, but the vintage sports car is not a value; it represents a value of either
- nostalgia (positive memories),
- display (vanity, showing off),
- materialism (greed, desire to own more or what others do not),
- aesthetics (beauty, appearance, style, design),
- prestige (status symbol), or
- pleasure (physical enjoyment).
Therefore, we can engage in the same behaviour, but for different values; one person may participate in a river cleanup because she values the future of the planet; another may value the appearance of the community in which she lives; another may help because friends are involved and she values relationships.
The fourth psychographic characteristic is needs, which are important deficiencies that we are motivated to fulfill. You may already be familiar with the well-known diagram known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). It is commonly discussed in the fields of management, psychology, and health professions. It is one way to think about needs. In trying to understand human motivation, Maslow theorized that as our needs represented at the base of the pyramid are fulfilled, we move up the hierarchy to fulfill other types of need (McLeod, 2014).
According to Maslow’s theory, our most basic physiological or survival needs must be met before we move to the second level, which is safety and security. When our needs for safety and security are met, we move up to relationships or connection needs, often called “love and belongingness.” The fourth level up is esteem needs, which could be thought of as achievement, accomplishment, or self-confidence. The highest level, self-actualization, is achieved by those who are satisfied and secure enough in the lower four levels that they can make sacrifices for others. (As an aside, this model is sometimes shown with different levels or labels, such as “social” instead of “love/belonging.” Many scholars reject this model as inaccurate. However problematic it may be, it is still a useful tool for considering audience motivations. Other useful models also exist.)
A “felt” need is another way to think about strong “wants” that the person believes will fulfill or satisfy them even if the item is not necessary for survival. For example, one humourous depiction of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (seen on Facebook) has the words “wifi” scribbled at the bottom of the pyramid. Another meme has “coffee” scribbled at the bottom of the hierarchy. As great as wifi and coffee are, they are not crucial to human survival, either individually or collectively, but we do want them so strongly that they operate like needs.
So, how do these psychographic characteristics operate in preparing a speech? They are most applicable to a persuasive speech, but they do apply to other types of speeches as well. What are your audience’s informational needs? What beliefs or attitudes do they have that could influence your choice of topic, sources, or examples? How can you make them interested in the speech by appealing to their values? The classroom speeches you give will allow you a place to practice audience analysis based on demographic and psychographic characteristics, and that practice will aid you in future presentations in the work place and community.
4.4 – Contextual Factors of Audience Analysis
The “facts about” and “inner qualities” (demographic and psychographic characteristics) of the audience influence your approach to any presentation. The context (place and time) of the speech does also. What follows are some questions to consider when planning your presentation.
- How much time do I have for the presentation? Time limits have three effects for the speaker. First, it lets them know how much of a given topic can realistically be covered. Secondly, the speaker must practice to be sure that the content actually fits in the given time, so the practice leads to a better speech. Third, time limits impose a discipline and focus on the speaker.
- What time of the day is the presentation? An audience at 8:00 a.m. is not the same as at 2:00 p.m. An audience on Monday at 10:00 a.m. is not the same as at 3:00 p.m. on Friday. The time of your presentation may tell you a great deal about how to prepare. For example, if the audience is likely to be tired, you might want to get them physically active or talking to each other in a part of the speech, especially if it is a longer presentation.
- Why is the audience gathered? In the case of your speech class, everyone is there, of course, because they want a grade and because they are students at the college. However, they also have career and educational goals and probably are at a certain stage in their education. In other contexts, the audience is there because of a common interest, commitment, or responsibility. What is it? Everything you do in the speech should be relevant to that reason for their being there.
- What is the physical space like? Straightforward, with the audience in rows and hard seats, as in a classroom? A typical boardroom with a long table and a dozen or more chairs around it? Big sofas and armchairs, where the audience might get too comfortable and drowsy? Can the speaker walk around and get closer to the audience? Does the speaker have to stay behind a lectern or on a platform? Is there audiovisual equipment? Is the room well-lit? Sometimes you will have no control over the physical space, especially in the speech classroom, but you should try to exert all the control you possibly can in other situations. Even the temperature of the room or outside noise can affect your speech’s effectiveness. Just closing the door can make a world of difference in the physical space and its effect on the audience.
- How large will the audience be? This factor will probably impact your delivery the most. You may need to increase your volume in a venue with a large audience or you might have to use a microphone, which could limit your walking around and getting close to the group. On the other hand, you might want to directly interact with the audience if it is a smaller, more intimate number of people. The size of the audience will also affect your choice of visual aids.
- What does the audience expect? Why were you asked to speak to them? Again, in a public speaking class, you will have certain specifications for the presentations, such as type of speech, length, kinds of sources used, and presentation aids (or lack thereof). For other speeches, you will need to ask many questions to know the context fully.
Knowing these details about the audience can greatly impact how successful you are as a speaker; not knowing them can potentially have adverse effects.
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.