Informing the Audience

Learning Objectives

Identify the needs of the audience of an informative speech.

An example to consider

Two people looking at a computer screen at a workshopJerid was tasked with teaching his colleagues about a new software being rolled out at work. He was the person who implemented the integration of this software into the company’s customer relationship management (CRM) application. Jerid was excited about teaching because he knew the system inside and out. Therefore, Jerid thought he didn’t have to prepare for the training workshop.

At the workshop, Jerid went through all the different features of the software. Even Jerid was amazed at how many different functions the software had! Each team at the company had different questions about the functions that would impact their work, and Jerid tried to answer each question as it came up. The engineering team, in particular, had a long and technical discussion about how the new software would interface with the existing database.

At the end of the workshop, Jerid handed out a survey to assess the experience of the workshop. When he read the ratings that came back, he was surprised to learn that many found the workshop unhelpful. Many of Jerid’s co-workers said that they were confused and still did not know how to use the software by the end of the workshop.

This is an example of a person who did not learn enough about the audience before presenting the information. What could Jerid have done differently to make sure that each member of the audience learned what they needed to from the workshop?

If you want your audience to learn something from your informative speech, it is extremely important to assess the audience’s knowledge of the subject you’ll be speaking about. You should apply the Goldilocks principle to the information you convey: if you give a highly specialized lecture about something the audience knows little about, it will go over their heads. If you present the basics about a subject about which they are already fairly knowledgeable, they’ll get bored. So what’s the perfect middle ground?

Learning science tells us that “prior knowledge is the most important influence on what is learnt.”[1] In practice, this means that the more you can build on what your audience already knows, the more they will learn.

The best strategy for presenting new information then, is to do it in such a way that your audience can attach it to knowledge they already have. How you do this will depend on the audience’s level of knowledge (or what you assume their knowledge to be. (See Module 4: Audience Analysis to find some strategies for getting a more concrete and detailed sense of the audience’s starting point.)

To Watch: Michael Rivas and Cynthia Desrochers

In this video, Michael Rivas and Cynthia Desrochers of California State University, Northridge discuss the important of connecting prior knowledge in teaching.

You can view the transcript for “Connecting Prior Knowledge – Gear 3” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Rivas’s example of using a rollercoaster to illustrate Newton’s first law of motion is a great example of how to connect higher-level concepts with the listeners’ experience. Earlier in the video, Desrochers illustrates the way prior knowledge works by talking about Apple products: “Many of us at home may have a Macbook Pro and then we got our iPhone. When the iPads came along, you know, we learned them quite quickly because we’d already established a neural pathway in the brain for how many of these Apple products work.” It’s a fine example to make her point, but it’s also an illustration of an important audience consideration when choosing examples. As we saw elsewhere, social class and income are two of the factors we need to think about when analyzing the audience. An example that starts with “many of us have a Macbook Pro and then we got our iPhone” is making a clear assumption about the buying power and consumer priorities of the audience—particularly because of the “we/us” formulation. Consider how this sentence might resonate differently for different audiences.

A deeper dive (optional)

In this video, English teacher Nicole Brittingham Furlong discusses the learning science behind the need to connect new knowledge to prior knowledge. This video will be of particular interest for those who teach or want to teach in some capacity.

You can view the transcript for “MOOC EDSCI1x | Video 4: Connecting Prior Knowledge | Memory and Learning” here (opens in new window).

To build on audience members’ prior knowledge, we need to have a sense of what they know already. Strategies for finding out about the knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs of your audience are covered in more detail in Module 4.

In terms of pre-existing knowledge of a given topic, audiences will fall into a number of categories:

  1. Very little knowledge about the topic
  2. Some exposure to the topic
  3. Previously exposed to false information about the topic
  4. Knowledgeable about the topic

If the audience knows very little about the subject you’re speaking about, you’ll need to help them create a foundation on which to build new knowledge (what education theorist David P. Ausubel calls an “advance organizer.”[2] Often, this foundation can be built with a metaphor or a comparison with something the audience already understands. If, in describing summer research you’ve been doing in the biology lab, you launch into a description of cellular biochemical reactions, you might lose your audience between “mitochondria” and “metabolic pathways.” Instead, you could use a metaphor like “Imagine that a kidney cell is a car. To make the car run we need fuel, right? The gas tank of our car is the cell’s mitochondria. Now imagine there’s a leak in the fuel line. What would happen?” and so on. By starting with knowledge the audience already has (a basic understanding of how a car works), you are helping them to attach new information to an existing structure of understanding.

When you’re confident that the audience has some understanding of the subject, you can start with their knowledge and build on it. For instance, let’s say the purpose of your speech is to inform the audience about the underappreciated role played by the inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr in developing technology that enabled Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and the cellular phone. Since your audience probably has some experience with these technologies, you could explain how they might function differently (or not at all) if Lamarr hadn’t come up with her method of sending a frequency-hopping signal.

Countering misinformation is a bit trickier. If the new information would replace facts that weren’t very important to the audience, or if the new information is more relevant or appealing than the knowledge it replaces, then the substitution can take place without much difficulty. However, if the facts you present contradict ideas that are highly significant to your listener, your information may be met with resistance. As the French West Indian psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon puts it:

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against the belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief. [3]

Whenever you take on a subject area full of competing facts—various data sets and interpretations of that data—it’s wise to slow down; acknowledge the controversy; and make your case in a thoughtful, respectful, and unbiased way. Above all, you should avoid belittling those who hold the view you are contradicting. Stick to the facts and avoid overly political language. After all, this is a speech to inform, not to persuade. If your facts are sound, and you present them clearly, they should make your case more effectively than fiery rhetoric.

If an audience is very knowledgeable about a topic, you can skip straight to the specifics and details. When giving a speech about cybersecurity to a room full of computer programmers, for instance, you wouldn’t have to explain what JavaScript is. Instead, you can get straight to the security exploit you’re concerned about.

A mixed audience, where some listeners are highly expert and others know very little about your topic, requires a different approach. In these situations, you can toggle back and forth between the basic information which keeps the beginners engaged and the more specialized information aimed at the experts. If you’re speaking in class about how to execute the perfect pick and roll, you may assume that some of your classmates have played basketball and others haven’t. For the ones who haven’t, you’ll have to explain the various positions and rules involved. For the avid basketball players, on the other hand, you should provide details that add to or go beyond their understanding of this move, so that they learn something from your speech as well.

  1. Kirschner, P. A., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How learning happens: seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Routledge.
  2. Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51(5), 267–272.
  3. Fanon, F. (2020). Black skin, white masks. Penguin Classics.