Describe the demographic characteristics used to analyze an audience.
Collecting demographic information is the most common way to learn about an audience. This method is usually not new to students. Most groups and communities collect information on their composition. This information usually includes gender/sex, age, race, religion, and socio-economic status.
On many applications, forms, and surveys, respondents are asked to specify their gender. In the past, the choice was usually binary and biologically based: male or female. These choices are most commonly reported in demographics. However, it is important to remember that the audience will be composed of people who identify gender and sex in many different ways.
Sex is typically assigned at birth, based on the appearance of external genitalia. Sex and gender are different identities, and gender can be portrayed in a variety of different ways. One’s gender is their lived experience; it is a deep connection a person has with themselves. Just as there are many ways to relate to one’s own gender, there are numerous terms used to describe gender identity. Some of the commonly used terms include nonbinary, transgender, gender non-conforming, gender-fluid, and gender neutral. A person whose gender corresponds to the sex assigned at their birth is often known as “cisgender.” Notice that these labels all have to do with gender identification, rather than biology or anatomy.
To make sure that one is inclusive with regard to gender, it is important to consider the pronouns one uses. Some speakers use a variety of pronouns when speaking, others generally use “they/them” or, where appropriate, try to use “you” or “we.”
Demographics often include racial identification. The racial categories used by the U.S. Census are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.  An ethnic group or ethnicity is a named social category of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area. Like any categories of identity, racial or ethnic categories can be meaningful as broad descriptors, but often fail to capture the relationship of any given individual with their background or heritage. There are many different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds within the racial categories and many individuals identify as mixed race. So, while this data might be helpful, do not assume that respondents who fall into a particular racial category will have similar backgrounds, perspectives, or affiliations.
Age is another commonly reported demographic. This data is very useful when considering the language, references, and examples to use in a speech. Remember that slang and cultural references tend to be connected to a particular generation, and might leave some of your listeners scratching their heads. If a speaker says that battery capacity is increasing “because science,” some of their viewers might miss the joke (and judge the speaker). Likewise, some viewers might not know what it looks like to do the bus stop or the hustle. If your audience tends to be the same age group (such as if you were speaking to a group of schoolchildren or retirees) you may be able to use examples and language that resonate with the appropriate age bracket. However, do your homework and avoid superficial knowledge. If, in a presentation to first graders, you decide to use examples of television characters that they may watch, you should get ready for questions about the show. The audience can identify when someone is authentic at any age.
Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity, beginning with various native beliefs of the pre-colonial time. Slightly over 50% of Americans report that religion plays a very important role in their lives, a much higher rate than most other wealthy countries. Christianity is the largest religion in the United States with the various Protestant Churches having the most adherents. In 2019, Christians represent 65% of the total adult population: 43% identifying as Protestants, 20% as Catholics, and 2% as Mormons (officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints); people with no formal religious identity represent 26% of the total population; Judaism is the second-largest religion in the U.S., practiced by 2% of the population; followed by Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism with 1% each.
Worldwide, the statistics look quite different. In 2015 Christians formed the largest religious group, with 31% of the total world population. Next come Muslims, with 24.1%; Hindus, with 15.1%; and Buddhists with 6.9%. A total of 16% declared themselves unaffiliated, and 5.7% practiced folk religions. Practitioners of Sikhism, Baha’i, and Jainism added up to less than 1%, and Jews accounted for about 0.2% of the global population, concentrated in the U.S. and Israel.
What demographic figures like this don’t tell us is how any given individual—or group of individuals—views matters of religious faith and practice. The diversity within religions is often as great as the diversity between religions, since practices and beliefs vary so much from place to place and person to person.
Socio-economic status (SES) refers to income level, occupation, and education level. This demographic gives the speaker an idea regarding what the group’s social background is.
Income level is a consideration. People view money and talk about money differently depending on how much they make. Speaking to a wealthier group would require examples and language that resonate with them. They may purchase new cars often. They may own their home or multiple homes. Conversely, for a poorer group, your examples and language should connect with them. They may not own a car and may rely on mass transit. They may rent an apartment. These considerations are important to creating a speech that is relevant to the listeners.
Speakers often consider the occupations that their audience have. The reason is that the job people have can say much about who that person is. It is safe to assume that a doctor or lawyer has years of specialized training whereas a grocery store clerk and waitperson may not have many years of specialized training. Knowing this information further assists with tailoring the speech to a specific audience.
Education level is often considered in Socio-economic status (SES). Technically, each level of education has corresponding vocabulary acquisition. Kindergarteners, high school graduates, and college graduates all have acquired language that is common for that level of learning accomplished. It is not uncommon to have an audience with various educational backgrounds. When this is the case, it is best to use language tailored to the national reading average, which is approximately the fifth-grade level.
Demographics are helpful in audience analysis. It gives you an idea of who you are addressing. However, it is not good to use demographic data alone. It is easy for people to make assumptions that may be biased based when using only one data set. For example, just because the lecturer looked at the fact book and found the college demographics, does not mean that each class will have the same composition. There may be greater diversity in gender and race than was reported for the overall college and there may be a wider age range. Therefore, using demographics along with other audience analysis methods can help avoid biases.
To Watch: Sarbjit Nahal: Demographic Disruption
In this TedX talk, financial analyst Sarbjit Nahal discusses the importance of paying attention to demographics; particularly, in this case, age.
What to watch for:
As one might expect in a talk about demographics, Nahal’s speech contains a great many facts and figures. One thing to note is the way he illustrates important trends in the data with clear and quickly readable charts. He also clumps certain figures together (for instance, the ones about aging populations or patterns in immigration) in such a way that one doesn’t need to remember the exact numbers to understand his point.
- https://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html ↵
- Fahmy, Dalia. "Americans Are Far More Religious Than Adults in Other Wealthy Nations." Pew Research Center Fact Tank. 31 July 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/31/americans-are-far-more-religious-than-adults-in-other-wealthy-nations/ ↵
- Hackett, Conrad, and David McClendon. “World's Largest Religion by Population Is Still Christianity.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 5 April 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/. ↵