Factors to Consider in Audience Analysis

Learning Objectives

Describe factors to consider when performing audience analysis.

What does it mean to be audience-centered when you speak or present? To be audience-centered is to shift your focus from yourself (what do I want to say about this topic?) to your audience (what does my audience want or need to hear about this topic?) But how do we go about making this shift? In part, by asking questions. On this page, we’ll look at four questions you can ask yourself to guide your analysis of the audience: Why are they here? What do they know already? Where do they stand? Where are they coming from?

Expectations of the event: Why are they here?

The first question you could ask of your imaginary audience is, why are they here? What does this audience expect to hear and what do they hope to learn? Are they here because they have to be (e.g., a mandatory meeting or a class session) or because they want to be? Is your presentation the “main event,” or is something else bringing this audience together? All these factors can be extremely important in planning your speech.

Prior experience with the topic: What do they know already?

Another extremely important factor to consider is the audience’s prior experience with the topic you’re discussing. This experience can take many forms. One form would be technical, theoretical, or academic knowledge of the subject. Another would be first-hand, observational, or practical experience. For instance, if you were presenting about the criminal justice system to a group of sociologists, you could assume a high level of theoretical knowledge about various methodologies of modeling social systems, but not necessarily an understanding of how the system is experienced by an individual trying to negotiate the court system. If you were presenting about the same topic to a group of people who had all been in prison, you could assume a high level of experience with the criminal justice system, but not necessarily a familiarity with sociological models of this system.

Attitude toward the topic: Where do they stand?

Generally speaking, the audience’s attitude toward the topic you are presenting can be grouped into a few categories. Audiences are said to be friendly if you can assume they would be inclined to agree with your assumptions and argument. A hostile audience, on the other hand, would not agree with your conclusions unless the listeners were convinced by your argument. For instance, if you were arguing in favor of a tax on carbon emissions, an environmentalist organization might be considered a friendly audience, whereas a group of oil and gas executives could be a hostile audience. Note: hostile audiences usually won’t heckle you or throw tomatoes. This term isn’t describing rude audiences, but rather audiences who are likely to disagree with your argument or have negative feelings toward your subject. Finally, if an audience is neither friendly nor hostile, it may be neutral (not having strong inclinations one way or another) or mixed (containing both friendly and hostile listeners—and probably neutral listeners as well).

Frame of reference: Where are they coming from?

A frame of reference describes the assumptions, values, and standards by which a person evaluates a particular idea or position. As you think about audience analysis in this section, ask yourself which frames of reference are shared by most members of your audience, and which are different for various audience members. If you are speaking in class, for instance, you can assume that one shared frame of reference is the affiliation with your school, whether as students or as instructors. Within this academic frame of reference, then, we can start from a premise that the whole class shares a desire to gain skills, knowledge, and opportunity. If you’re speaking to your local Chamber of Commerce, one shared frame of reference might be an investment in the health of the local business community. A group of teachers might share certain values and standards related to the educational system. Members of the International Students Association might have a common experience of negotiating different national and cultural frames of reference.

In large part, audience analysis involves trying to learn about your audience’s frames of reference—cultural, philosophical, religious, demographic, economic, and so on. It is extremely important, however, to avoid jumping to conclusions about your listeners’ values, standards, and experiences based on your analysis of the audience.

As Daphne A. Jameson has pointed out, the most important starting point for audience analysis is self-understanding: “The metacognitive problem is to know what one knows—and does not know—about others.”[1]

  1. Jameson, D. A. (2007). Reconceptualizing Cultural Identity and Its Role in Intercultural Business Communication. Journal of Business Communication, 44(3), 199–235. doi:10.1177/0021943607301346