Focusing on the Audience’s Needs, 4 Common Problems in Public Speaking

Determining the needs of your audience can feel like a daunting task. There are many things to take into consideration, such as; are you presenting to like-minded professionals? Is this a public outreach event? Does the audience know any of the subject matter?  What age group is the audience? Is the audience full of native speakers of your language, or not? Is jargon going to confuse most of the audience?  And the list goes on and on. However, just because audience consideration is complicated, it doesn’t mean it can be overlooked. Imagine if a college professor taught a class but treated the students like they were colleagues at a national meeting. Most of the students in the room would be lost and confused, causing them to disengage from what is being taught. Likewise if someone was presenting at a national meeting, but used the format of a Biology 101 class, the audience would become quickly bored due to the level of information. Taking into account who you are speaking to is an important task that cannot be overlooked by any speaker.3 Considering your audience when preparing your presentation will make positive and significant impacts on what you are communicating.1

When we converse with our friends, colleagues, and family we almost always tailor our conversations and stories to meet their needs. Often we do this without thinking too much about it. If you desire to create a greater impact, increase retention of information, or want people to take action, then you need to carefully consider the audience in the same way. As an aside, teaching in the classroom is a form of public speaking as well, but is a significantly different experience. The classroom can have very different levels of audience participation and [therefore teaching deserves it own separate post].  Here I am going to focus on the traditional rhetorical presentation and consider the audience to improve the the impact of the message. In a rhetorical presentation generally you are not going to get any verbal feedback from your audience (except maybe during the end Q and A session). Despite the lack of feedback there are many things you can do to avoid problems and help connect to your audience.

2014-14 wikimania day three (14)

Problem 1; Turning your most recent paper or report into a presentation.

“Scientific reports belong to the genre of forensic arguments, affirming the validity of past facts, the experimental data”2

The above statement says it all, not only is it a wordy and complicated sentence that is somewhat confusing, but it also states that papers are designed to store our facts and experimental data. Papers and reports are great materials for reference and learning. However, they are meant to be read and not used as a substitute for good public speaking. The advantage of a paper and the written word is that the reader can stop at any moment, and look up a definition or reread a confusing sentence. In the medium of spoken presentations the audience does not have that opportunity. In a presentation the audience is locked in to whatever you say or do. And if something isn’t clear then there is now way an audience member can fix the problem in the moment. Using a paper or report as basis of the presentation will hurt your chances at connecting with the audience. An occasional fact or figure from a recent paper is fine but don’t overdo it. I have too often heard people say “Oh I just took my paper and turned it into some slides”, this approach will seriously hinder your ability to communicate and ultimately make the audience disconnect. If you are making a presentation about your recent findings in a paper, then try writing (without looking at your paper) a quick summary of the paper in your own conversational tone. This can be done in a formal written page or in a brainstorming session, just make sure to focus on the overall outcome, story, or take home message. Then, go back to your scientific paper and fill in any details that need some strengthening. This way you are not going from a technical paper direct to a presentation, but rather you are forced to translate the story for the audience before you are on stage.

Problem 2; Not enough context to your story.

The audience needs context in addition to the facts of the story. Just giving the basic “who what where why when” is not enough, there must be a clear and formulated story that is the backbone of the presentation Audience members shut down if there is a lack of information and context; specifically in structure and visuals.In a way, you must assume that the audience knows nothing about the topic, that does not mean assume the audience is stupid. 4 As the audience takes in new information they generally cannot retain and process more than 5 to 7 new things at a time. Be considerate of the amount of new ideas you are throwing out there and make sure that the background to each part is explained. For example, this can be done by showing a picture of hospital beds or saying the of number of deaths from malaria each year. In this case a concise picture or numerical fact will help the audience understand why you are doing your work. Additionally people respond very well when you convey what you believe in as well as why you do things you do.

Furthermore make sure to be honest about any uncertainties in your work or results. As a communicator you must present a balanced point of view, but also be honest about the certainties and present the correct point of view. The audience needs to know if something is controversial, or has some parts of the argument that are not yet fully resolved. By doing this you will help add context to your story, showing that it (the science) if often a work in progress, but still tremendous gains have been made on the topic.

Problem 3; Customize your message? Or a one size fits all approach?

Deciding whether to make a single presentation for everyone or create an customized message depends very much on the audience.1 Having a single presentation and message can help maintain a consistent image when dealing with different groups. By maintaining a similar message across your presentations, you will begin to project a single specific identity that the general public can connect with.1 This might help in the case of a controversial topic, where there are many doubters or disbelievers in your field. Using the same approach across different audiences will prevent any accusations of hypocrisy by having different variations of the same message. On the other hand, making a custom presentation for your audience, is beneficial when dealing with small or special interest groups. Giving the audience the information they want and need may increase retention and project trustworthiness in you.1 Additionally by customizing your message you are allowing the audience to feel more included in the project or research. Ultimately you will need to use your best judgement as to which method to use.

Problem 4; Lack of use of technology and up to date materials.

Smart phone

All too often presentations will use out of date materials, old visual aids and ignore current technologies. Audience members are very savvy and will especially notice out of date information. Almost everyone carries around a fully functional computer in their pocket these days. Since everyone is always connected to the internet (aka all of human knowledge) the audience is aware how old information is. Even if you reuse a slide from a few years ago a tremendous amount has happened in the world since then, and in a globally connected world information is moving faster than ever. It is in your best interest to make sure all information is up to date and accurate since and no one wants to see old stuff recycled in a presentation. Additionally don’t stray away from new technologies. The internet has revolutionized the world, and using old outdated tech to tell a story will generally bore your audience. That is not to say you need to get overwhelmed learning newest social app out there, but make sure to take note of new technologies in your field and integrate them as best you can. Think of it this way, PowerPoint was released 25 years ago, YouTube and streaming video is over 10 years old now, Facebook is 11 years old, Twitter is 9 years old, and Snapchat is turning 4. If you are not even aware of the new things happening you are already behind, so do your homework and read tech news once to stay up to date. Simply being ready to learn new things and integrate them into your presentation is already half the battle.

Fotothek df roe-neg 0006206 036 Blick auf die Zuschauer des Theaterstücks "Spiel

When presenting we need to consider to the audience and work with them while giving a presentation. The audience is already interested otherwise they would not have come to hear you talk, so don’t waste that opportunity by not taking them into consideration. If the concerns, interest, and intelligence, of the audience is taken superficially, then the likely outcome is mistrust and cynicism.1 Careful consideration to the audience is needed to avoid undesirable outcomes in communicating your message.So do your homework before your next presentation and you will connect with the audience in a much better way.


1. Crane, A., & Livesey, S. M. (2003). Are you talking to me? Stakeholder communication and the risks and rewards of dialogue. Stakeholder Communication and the Risks and Rewards of Dialogue.

2. Fahnestock, J. (1986). Accommodating Science The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written communication, 3(3), 275-296.

3. Friedman, S. M., Dunwoody, S., & Rogers, C. L. (1999). Communicating uncertainty: Media coverage of new and controversial science. Routledge.

4. Rogers, C. L. (2000). Making the audience a key participant in the science communication process. Science and engineering ethics, 6(4), 553-557.

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