Tailoring Your Speech to the Audience

Learning Objectives

Explain what it means to tailor a speech to the audience and the event.

You know that you have to give a presentation and you know there is an audience; what’s next? A bit of research is in order at this point. The more you know about who is listening, the better you will be able to connect your message with them.

Knowing about the audience and the event allows the speaker to tailor the speech for a particular speaking situation. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Janelle, who just completed a summer internship researching PTSD and substance abuse, is invited to present her work to a gathering of physicians. This presentation seems like a perfect opportunity to help medical professionals better understand this complex problem. She puts together a powerful presentation that uses stories from her research to illustrate the vicious circle of trauma and addiction and plans breakout groups in which the physicians would explore how their own work could be improved by a trauma-informed approach to medical care.

People sitting at tables eating.

Janelle didn’t realize that she’d be speaking at a holiday luncheon.

When she arrives at the event, she discovers that she is one of four students being featured at the event as the recipients of “Rising Research Stars” scholarships. The event itself, she learns, is a holiday luncheon for a local physicians’ group. Even though the scholarship presentation is only a small part of the event, she is allowed to give her full presentation. The crowd seems engaged at first, but she can tell they are losing focus halfway through. 

Afterwards, one of the organizers says, “that’s very impressive work you’re doing. Kind of a downer for a holiday party, though.” He laughs, but Janelle realizes he’s right: she gave the right presentation for the wrong crowd.

In a way, Janelle isn’t the only one at fault here: the organizers didn’t give her enough information to understand her role in the event. The mismatch between her presentation and the audience’s expectations could have been avoided, though, if she had asked a few questions about the nature of the event: What kind of gathering is it? Who will be there? What are they hoping to learn from me?

People standing in a circle in a classroom

Knowing about your audience and the event can help to make a presentation successful.

Scenario 2: Jaden needs to train day care employees on changes in their health and safety procedures. Jaden knows that this topic is critical as the workers have to make sure that all the little ones get the best care. Jaden does his homework and asks the day care manager about the attendees—how many there will be along with some demographic information. Even better, Jaden visits the day care to observe the people who will attend.

This prior knowledge gives Jaden information on how to construct his presentation. He will know what type of people will attend, what the facility looks like in which he will speak, age, gender, number, and so on. When Jaden creates his training, he will keep this information in mind. He  can tailor the language, examples, humor, and experience to the group. When Jaden conducts the training, the audience can tell that this training is just for them.

During the speech, Jaden can gauge the audience’s reaction. He can look for visual cues such as eye contact, body language, questions, and so on. He can tell if he is losing his audience if he sees someone dozing off in the back. He can tell if he is winning the audience by head shakes. Jaden will know from this feedback how engaged the audience is and can adjust his presentation based on what he observes.

The final step to knowing how the presentation went is asking for feedback on a survey. You have all experienced surveys given out at the end of speeches. The purpose is to help the speaker improve. Jaden will know from the surveys what his audience thought. He can then incorporate changes or keep some elements based upon what he learns. This is research into how everything went – thus, post feedback.

Tailoring a speech to one’s audience is the best way to get them to be invested in what you’re saying.

Watch out, though! If you tailor your speech too much to one segment of the audience, you risk losing the rest. If you speak just to the experts, your material could sail over the heads of beginners. If you speak only to those who agree with one side of an issue, those who hold the opposing view will dismiss your argument or get angry. Even if your entire audience might agree with your views on something, you should avoid telling them only what they want or expect to hear. This kind of one-sided presentation is called pandering or “preaching to the choir.”

To listen: Steve Martin, Plumbers Joke

Comedian Steve Martin plays with the idea of pandering to the audience on his 1977 standup album Let’s Get Small. After setting up the idea that a group of plumbers from a convention are at his show, he tells a joke just for the plumbers.

You can view the transcript for “plumbers joke steve martin” here (opens in new window).

After a long wind-up, we get the punchline:

This infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual. He reads to him, “The Langstrom 7-inch wrench can be used with the Findley sprocket.” Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, “It says sprocket, not socket!”

When the joke doesn’t bring down the house, Martin asks, “were those plumbers supposed to be here this show?”


Try It