Categories of Audience Analysis

No matter which of the above inquiry methods you choose to do your audience analysis, you will, at some point, need to direct your attention to the five “categories” of audience analysis. These are the five categories through which you will learn to better appreciate your audience. Let’s now examine these categories and understand the variables and constraints you should use to estimate your audience’s information requirements.

Situational Analysis

bored students

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

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.[1] 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.

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.

Being popular with an audience is a very rickety ladder to be on. ~ Louis C. K.

Demographic Analysis

The second category of audience analysis is demography. As mentioned before, demographics are literally a classification of the characteristics of the people. Whenever addressing an audience, it is generally a good idea to know about its age, gender, major, year in school, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, et cetera. There are two steps in doing an accurate demographic analysis: gathering demographic data and interpreting this data.[2]

Sometimes, this information is gathered by the questionnaire sampling method, and is done formally. On other occasions, this information is already available in a database and is made available to the speaker. Some noteworthy speakers even have “scouts” who do demographic research on an audience prior to a speaking event, and make interpretations on that audience based upon key visual cues. For example, congresspersons and senators frequently make public appearances where they use stock speeches to appeal to certain audiences with specific demographic uniqueness. In order to know what type of audience he or she will be addressing, these politicians dispatch staff aides to an event to see how many persons of color, hecklers, and supporters will be in attendance. Of course, studying demographic characteristics is, indeed, more an art form than a science. Still, it is a common practice among many professional speakers.

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, the smart speaker would shift his or her 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 his or her message to play to the audience entirely? Ethically, a speaker should not shift his or her message and should remain true to his or her motives. Only you will be able to alleviate the tension between a speaker’s need to adapt to an audience and his or her need to remain true to form.[3]

My greatest challenge has been to change the mindset of people. Mindsets play strange tricks on us. We see things the way our minds have instructed our eyes to see. ~ Muhammad Yunus

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.[4] They are your keys to understanding how your audience thinks.

Attitudes

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.[5] 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 1.

Table 1: Examples of Attitudes
Pro-/Anti-war
Pro-diversity
Anti-affirmative action
Pro-choice
Pro-life
Pro-/Anti-gambling
Pro-/Anti-prostitution
Pro-/Anti-capital punishment
Pro-/Anti-free trade
Pro-/Anti-outsourcing
Pro-/Anti-welfare
Pro-/Anti-corporate tax cuts
Pro-/Anti-censorship

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.

Other people’s beliefs may be myths, but not mine. ~ Mason Cooley

Beliefs

Beliefs are principles[6] 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 2.

Table 2: 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 or harmful.
Ghosts are products of our imagination.
Smoking does not cause cancer.
Only high-risk groups acquire HIV.

Values

A value, on the other hand, is a guiding belief that regulates our attitudes.[7] 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 3.

Table 3: 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 (as discussed in Chapter 14 Speaking to a Global 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.[8] 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 factors in mind when writing a speech for a diverse audience.

Language

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.[9]

Cognition

Realize that different cultures have different cultural-cognitive processes, or ways of looking at the very concept of logic itself. Accordingly, gauge your audience as to their diverse ways of thinking and be sensitive to these differing logics.

Ethnocentricity

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.[10]

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

Values

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

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. And, 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


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  2. Benjamin, B. (1969). Demographic analysis. New York: Praeger.
  3. Natalle, E.J. & Bodenheimer, F.R. (2004) The woman’s public speaking handbook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  4. Campbell, K.K. & Huxman, S.S. The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically (3rd Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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  6. Bem, D. J. (1970). Beliefs, attitudes, and human affairs. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co.
  7. Rokeach, M. (1968). Beliefs, attitudes, and values; a theory of organization and change (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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  9. Klopf, D.W. & Cambra, R.E. (1991) Speaking skills for prospective teachers (2nd Ed.). Englewood, CO: Morton Publishing Company. Tauber, R.T. & Mester, C.S. Acting Lessons for Teachers, Using Performance Skills in the Classroom. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  10. Pearson, J.C., Nelson, P.E., Titsworth, S. & Harter, L. (2011). Human communication (4th Ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.