Every Audience Is Diverse

Learning Objectives

Describe key considerations in speaking to diverse audiences.

Every audience is diverse. The question becomes in what way are they diverse. What is the unique mix of this audience? How do they differ or overlap in terms of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and so on? Your demographic analysis might give you a partial answer to some of these questions, but it won’t—and can’t—explain how the audience members relate to any given categories of demographics or identity. The most important rule is never assume. Don’t assume you know something about any given member of your audience—or the audience as a whole—based on their identity, demographics, or background. Thus, attending to the diversity of your audience often means reminding yourself to put away your assumptions and preconceptions to try to create the most accessible and appropriate speech for this particular group of people.

A child sitting on a man's shoulders and covering her hears

Your language should be appropriate for the age of your listeners.

Age: A diversity of ages in your audience means that you need to think about the examples you use in your speech, especially generationally grounded references to popular culture or experiences. If you were to say, “of course, we all remember those long lines at the gas pumps during the 1973 oil crisis,” you’d probably leave most of your audience behind—unless you knew for certain that you were talking to people aged 55 or older. Also, if there are children in the audience (for instance, if you’re speaking at an event with families), you’ll want to avoid language or content that is inappropriate for younger listeners.

Race/Ethnicity: It’s important to remember that every communication practice takes place within a specific cultural context. As speakers, we each bring to the speaking situation the complexity of our own identities, and as listeners, we hear through the filter of our cultural context. Public communication within a racially and ethnically diverse society requires both inward and outward thinking: first, we need to analyze our own cultural context to become aware of our own assumptions, tendencies, and preconceptions. Next, looking outward, we need to consider how the content of our speech might be received by listeners whose context and expectations differ from our own. At the very least, speakers should avoid language that could alienate their listeners. For more on preventing alienation, see the section on inclusive language.

Racial and ethnic background, like all cultural context, can shape an audience’s expectations around a speaker’s performance, including body language; interactivity; metaphors; figures of speech; and vocal tone, pitch, and rate. Likewise, the speaker may have expectations about how an audience will react to them and what kind of feedback they can count on during the speaking situation. When the audience and the speaker do not share the same experiences in speaking situations, it can be a challenge—but often a highly productive one—to bridge the gap and find common cause in the power of the message. 

Socioeconomic Status or Class: Attentive speakers will consider how socioeconomic status can inform their own worldviews and that of their audience. When speaking with a socioeconomically diverse audience (which is most audiences), it can be helpful to consider places where one can make an implicit (unspoken or implied) assumption about educational level, housing situation, travel opportunity, or financial priorities. Socioeconomic status has a lot to do with the values and priorities or your audience members—the things they think are most important in their lives, and therefore the approaches and arguments most likely to convince them. In an essay called “Invisible Identities: Notes on Class and Race,” David Engen talks about his experience learning and writing about communication from a working-class, blue-collar background. “Because members of different social classes come to see the world differently,” Engen writes, “we can make cautious generalizations about the attitudes and values present within a given social class.”[1] Here is an example of one such “cautious generalization”: Some experts suggest that working-class culture tends to stress interdependence, “the ability to adjust to the situation, build community, and be responsive to others,” over the independent values highlighted by middle- or upper-class cultures: the “ability to make choices, pave [their] own paths, and voice [their] ideas and opinions.” [2]

Gender and Sexuality: As we discuss in greater length in the section on inclusive language, it is important to steer clear of gendered language (like “mankind”) and avoid gendered pronouns (“A speaker should watch his language”). Avoid sexualized or gendered language, which can be off-putting or offensive. For instance, consider this quote from Warren Buffett: “No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” Some might find this insight clever or profound, others might find it in poor taste, but either way, it divides the audience along gendered lines: the you in Buffett’s quote is male and heterosexual.[3] One should also be wary of statements about relationships and family that can be considered heteronormative or heterosexist: that is, assuming heterosexuality as a default, preferred, or normal mode of sexual orientation.[4]

Ability: An important consideration in preparing your speech presentation is to make your content as accessible as possible. Here are some accessibility tips to keep in mind:

During the speech:

  • Use a microphone if it’s available. The amplification can help participants with hearing impairments.
  • Enunciate clearly and keep your face and lips visible to the audience.
  • Ensure any question-and-answer period is accessible. If there is a microphone for questioners, make sure they use it. Otherwise, repeat the questions so everyone can hear them.
  • Describe visual events in the speech. If you ask for a show of hands in response to a question, say the number of people who raised their hands.

In preparing visual aids:

  • Use high contrast colors. Audience members with low vision or color blindness will appreciate it.
  • Do not use color as the only method for distinguishing information.
  • Use large (at least 24 point), simple, san serif fonts (e.g., Arial, Verdana, Helvetica) that can be easily read by most individuals from the back of a large room.
  • Minimize the amount of text on slides. When you advance a slide, pause to let people read it before saying anything. This will allow people who are deaf and everyone else in the audience to read the slide before you start talking. Read the text on the slide to make sure people who are blind in the audience know what is on the slide.
  • Limit the number of visuals on slides. Images that are used should be described so that people who are blind in the audience will know what image is being displayed. Graphs and charts should be described and summarized.
  • Avoid presenting images of complex charts or tables. Make graphics as simple as possible.
  • Make sure that videos are captioned and audio described. Sometimes it is good to give a brief description of what is in the video before it is played. This will help audience members who are blind to establish context for what they will hear.

Religion: For some people, religion is a core part of their identity. For others, religion is only a concept. In most cases, it is important to be religion-neutral when speaking with a group; do not assume everyone is of the same faith system as you are. Since most audiences will include a diversity of belief systems and various levels of commitment, you should avoid religious references that pigeonhole audience members into one faith or attitude toward religion. This is not to say, however, that a speaker shouldn’t discuss religion at all. If you are speaking about your own faith, background, or belief system, you should state that clearly. When describing the religious practices or beliefs of others, be sure to avoid generalizations or stereotypes, and use precise, respectful language. If you are speaking to a faith-based group, you can use religious references that will resonate with the audience.

Politics: It may be true that all communication is political, but some topics are considered more political than others. Usually when we think of a speech “getting political,” we mean that it veers into contested territory within national party politics. Some topics are inherently political, while others become politicized by current events, competing priorities, and high-level disagreements. If you want to communicate your overall message successfully, your approach to politics has to be guided by your knowledge of the audience. Some groups will largely share the same political beliefs—if you’re speaking to a group of young Republicans, you can guess which views they’re likely to support on a number of issues. In many cases, however, you may not know the political leanings of your audience, or you may have a mixed group with representatives of a variety of political leanings. In these situations, it is important not to alienate parts of your audience unnecessarily. If the political point isn’t crucial to your argument (such as a political joke or side-comment), you might reconsider it. If you’re trying to convince the audience of a political point—or discuss a politicized topic—try to start from common ground and move toward the conclusion you’re trying to achieve.

Language: If you’re speaking in your native language, it’s important to remember that not everyone is listening in their native language. Especially if you know that members of your audience have less experience with the language of your presentation, it’s best to avoid difficult idioms or figures of speech. If you say, “The code challenge, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish,” a non-native English speaker might be at sixes and sevens. (See what we did there? That’s a British idiom meaning confused or in disarray).

Culture: The challenge of communicating across cultural differences often requires a set of tools beyond the suggestions above. When the cultures of two or more communicators differ significantly, we describe the situation with terms like “intercultural communication,” “multicultural communication,” or “co-cultural communication.” These are enormous fields of study, so we can only scratch the surface in this course. In the next pages, we’ll look at some of the key considerations in intercultural communication.

  1. Engen, David. "Invisible Identities: Notes on Class and Race." Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication. Alberto González and Yea-Wen Chen, eds. Oxford, 2016, 253.
  2. Dittmann, Andrea. Understanding Social Class as Culture. 1 June 2017, https://behavioralscientist.org/understanding-social-class-as-culture/. See also Engen 254.
  3. Andersen, Erika. "23 Quotes from Warren Buffett on Life and Generosity." Forbes, 2 Dec. 2013, https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2013/12/02/23-quotes-from-warren-buffett-on-life-and-generosity/#3c1a46fcf891
  4. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/language