The “facts about” and “inner qualities” (demographic and psychographic characteristics) of the audience influence your approach to any presentation. The context (place and time) of the speech does also. What follows are some questions to consider when planning your presentation.
1. How much time do I have for the presentation? As mentioned in Chapter 1, we must respect the time limits of a speech. In most cases you will have little control over the time limits. In class the instructor assigns a five- to six-minute speech; at work, there may be an understood twenty-minute presentation rule in the organization, since attention can diminish after a certain length. You might be asked to speak to a community group for your company and be told that you have thirty minutes—that seems like a long time, but if you are really passionate about the subject, that time can go quickly.
Knowing the time limit for a speech does three things for the speaker. First, it lets her know how much of a given topic can realistically be covered. Secondly, the speaker must practice to be sure that his/ her content actually fits in the time given, so the practice leads to a better speech. Third, time limits impose a discipline and focus on the speaker.
In reference to practice, this might be a good place to dispel the “practice makes perfect” myth. It is possible to practice incorrectly, so in that case, practice will make permanent, not perfect. There is a right way and a wrong way to practice a speech, musical instrument, or sport.
2. What time of the day is the presentation? An audience at 8:00 in the morning is not the same as at 2:00 p.m. An audience at Monday at 10:00 a.m. is not the same as at 3:00 Friday afternoon. The time of your presentation may tell you a great deal about how to prepare. For example, if the audience is likely to be tired, you might want to get them physically active or talking to each other in a part of the speech, especially if it is a long presentation.
3. Why is the audience gathered? In the case of your speech class, everyone is there, of course, because they want a grade and because they are students at the college. However, they also have career and educational goals and probably are at a certain stage in their education. (Some people wait until the last semester of senior year to take this course, but most are going to be first-year students.) In other contexts, the audience is there because of a common interest, commitment, or responsibility. What is it? Everything you do in the speech should be relevant to that reason for their being there.
4. What is the physical space like? Straightforward, with the audience in rows and hard seats, as in a classroom? A typical boardroom with a long table and a dozen or more chairs around it? Big sofas and armchairs, where the audience might get too comfortable and drowsy? Can the speaker walk around and get closer to the audience? Does the speaker have to stay behind a lectern or on a platform? Is there audiovisual equipment? Is the room well-lit? Sometimes you will have no control over the physical space, especially in the speech classroom, but you should try to exert all the control you possibly can in other situations. Even the temperature of the room or outside noise can affect your speech’s effectiveness. Just closing the door can make a world of difference in the physical space and its effect on the audience.
5. Related to number 4 is “How large will the audience be?” Ten people or one hundred? This factor will probably affect your delivery the most. You may need to increase your volume in a venue with a large audience, or you might have to use a microphone, which could limit your walking around and getting close to the group. On the other hand, you might want to directly interact with the audience if it is a smaller, more intimate number of people. The size of the audience will also affect your choice of visual aids.
6. What does the audience expect? Why were you asked to speak to them? Again, in the class you will have certain specifications for the presentations, such as type of speech, length, kinds of sources used, visual aids or lack of them. In other contexts, you will need to ask many questions to know the context fully.
Knowing these details about the audience can greatly impact how successful you are as a speaker, and not knowing them can potentially have adverse effects. One of the textbook authors was asked to speak to the faculty of another college about 120 miles away on the subject of research about teaching college students. Because the campus she was visiting was a branch campus, she assumed (always dangerous) that only the faculty on that small branch campus would be present. Actually, the faculty of the whole college—over 400 instructors in a college of over 21,000 students—showed up. Although the speaker was very conscious of time limits (30 minutes), subject matter, needs of the audience, and expectations, the change in the size of the expected audience was a shock.
It all went well because she was an experienced speaker, but she was a little embarrassed to realize she had not asked the actual size of the audience. Of course, the auditorium was much larger than she expected, the slides she planned to use were inappropriate, and she could not walk around. Instead, she was “stuck” behind a lectern. This is all to say that the importance of knowing your audience and taking the time to prepare based on that knowledge can make your speech go much more smoothly, and not doing so can lead to unexpected complications.