Gathering Information about Your Audience

Learning Objectives

  • Explain ways to gather information about your audience.

Now that you know why an audience analysis is essential, let’s turn to how to gather the information you need about your audience. Here are three ways that you can collect this knowledge.

First-Hand Observation

If you are able, you could directly observe the audience by attending one of their events. A guest lecturer might sit in on a class to see what the students are like before coming to present to the class. Who are they? What is the age range? How do they respond to the faculty member? What is the gender composition? What is the racial mix? How many are present?

Being able to observe the group ahead of the speech can offer a great deal of information for writing the speech. In general, people learn more through experience than from a second-hand resource.

However, you will want to guard against introducing your own biases into the observation. Our human senses do not impartially record all observations. Thus, two people can view the same audience and come away with entirely different perceptions, even disagreeing about simple facts. This is why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

Second-Hand Observation

If a friend asks you to speak at their workplace, you would probably ask them some questions: Who works for the organization? What are the different roles at the organization? What is the workplace culture like? Are people excited or upset about anything in particular right now?

The same word of warning applies to first- and second-hand observations, however: all observations are limited in their perspective and subject to personal experience and/or bias. Imagine that your friend says, “Everyone at the organization loves working there! We don’t really have workplace conflict like other places do.” You’d have to take this with a grain of salt, since this is clearly your friend’s perception, but not necessarily that of their coworkers.


This is a trickier method of collecting information. Inference requires that you use your critical thinking skills to make an educated guess about the audience. Let’s continue the example of the guest lecturer. If the lecturer is not able to observe the class, she can make inferences from evidence that she does have. She can look at the college website to find out the school demographics. She can consider the course number to determine if it is an advanced or introductory level class. She can look at the college’s fact book to get a general idea of the age range, gender distribution, racial composition, country, or state of origin, and average course size.

This lecturer can also talk with the professor who teaches the class and ask questions about who the students are and what they are studying. With all this information, the lecturer can infer who the students are by thinking critically about the evidence collected and making an educated guess as to who is in the audience.

Data Collection

Another common way to learn about your audience is by collecting data, often through surveys. Usually these methods use some form of sampling, or collecting information about a subset of a group to estimate characteristics about the larger group. Imagine walking into hotel lobby and seeing lots of people in formal clothes. You want to know what’s up, so you ask a woman near the elevator why she’s there. “I’m here for the wedding,” she says. Then you ask two men at the bar. “Our friend’s getting married,” one of them says. Through sampling, we’ve discovered something about this group. We don’t need to ask everyone in the lobby; we can infer that the other people (or most of them) are here for the same reason.

Interviews or open-ended surveys

An interview is a conversation that involves asking questions to obtain information. Generally, you will be using the four different types of questions which follow:

  • Open-ended questions. Questions that ask who, what, where, when, why, and how are generally good open-ended questions. An open-ended question requires the respondent to reply with more information than a “yes” or “no” answer. For example, “Tell me about what kind of music you listen to,” will probably get you a lot more information than, “Do you like to listen to death metal?” which will only require a “yes” or “no” answer.
  • Closed questions. When you need a “yes” or “no” answer or when you want the other person to provide you with a specific answer from among a set of choices, use closed questions. Closed means that you only have specific options, and no other choices. “Do you spend more time texting at home, work, or school?” is a closed question with three choices.
  • Probe for more information. After a respondent answers a question, you can probe to get clarification or more information. By asking “probing” questions you can tailor the interview, as it is occurring.
  • Mirror questions. This type of question reflects the previous content back to the interviewee. A mirror question can be used to probe for more information or to provide a summary for the interviewee to agree, correct, or expand upon.

Avoid leading questions. A leading question is one that virtually guarantees that the interviewee will reply with a desired answer. For example, “Wouldn’t you prefer X? ” indicates what you want the interviewee to prefer. You do not find out what the interviewee really thinks.


A basic questionnaire is a survey consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents. Questionnaires have advantages over other types of surveys in that they are cheap, do not require as much effort from the questioner as verbal or telephone surveys, and often have standardized answers that make it simple to compile data. For example, you might have a question with easily scorable, multiple-choice answers such as:

What is your marital status?

  1. Single
  2. Married
  3. Divorced
  4. Partnered

Some of the key information you’ll want to know about the audience is called demographic data. We’ll take a deeper dive into demographics on the next page.

Another type of survey used for data collection, especially to gauge a group’s attitudes, experience, or prior knowledge, is a Likert scale questionnaire. Likert scales are questionnaires where the response is rated on a predetermined scale. For example, the lecturer could ask, how much do you know about women’s rights? 1 (a lot), 2 (some), 3 (a little), 4 (very little), or 5 (nothing). These questionnaires are easier to compile than open-ended surveys or interviews since using a scale can quantify the results. With an open-ended survey, the responses are qualitative (based on qualities or characteristics rather than measurable quantities) and must all be read to gauge what an audience reaction might be.

Labelled example of a multi-item psychometric scale as used in questionnaires

Labelled example of a multi-item psychometric scale as used in questionnaires.

Recap: Knowing your audience

You can view the transcript for “Knowing Your Audience” here (opens in new window).


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