Chapter 2: Audience Analysis and Listening
After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:
- Define audience-centered, audience analysis, and demographic characteristics;
- List and explain the various demographic characteristics used to analyze an audience;
- Define the meanings of attitudes, beliefs, values, and needs;
- Diagram Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and explain its usefulness to public speaking;
- Describe contextual factors that should be considered when preparing a speech;
- Describe typical barriers to listening in public speaking situations;
- Explain ways an individual can improve his/her listening when in an audience; and
- Apply what he/she knows about listening to improve personal preparation of a speech.
2.1 – The Importance of Audience Analysis
2.2 – Demographic Characteristics
2.3 – Psychographic Characteristics
2.4 – Contextual Factors of Audience Analysis
2.5 – Listening in Public Speaking Settings
2.1 – The Importance of Audience Analysis
One of the advantages of studying public speaking and improving your own skills is that you become much more aware of what other speakers do. In one respect, we are able to look for ways to emulate what they do—for example, how they might seamlessly incorporate stories or examples into their speaking, or how they might use transitions to help audiences follow the speech’s logic. In another respect, we become aware of how a speaker might use dramatic delivery or emotional appeals to hide a lack of facts or logic. A course in public speaking should include ways to improve one’s listening to public speaking.
This chapter will look at the audience from both sides of the lectern, so to speak. First it will examine how a presenter can fully understand the audience, which will aid the speaker in constructing the approach and content of the speech. Secondly, this chapter will examine the public speaker as audience member and how to get the most out of a speech, even if the topic does not seem immediately interesting.
As discussed in Chapter 1, we have Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson (1967) to thank for pointing out to us that communication always involves a content dimension and a relationship dimension. Nowhere does that become more important than when we look into what is commonly known as audience analysis. Their concept about content and relationship dimension will guide this chapter. You are not using the speech to dump a large amount of content on the audience; you are making that content important, meaningful, and applicable to them. Additionally, the way the audience perceives you and your connection to them—such as whether there is mutual trust and respect—will largely determine your success with the audience. The speaker must respect the audience as well and the audience should trust the speaker.
2.2 – Demographic Characteristics
When we use the term audience analysis, we mean looking at the audience first by its demographic characteristics and then by their internal psychological traits. “Demo-” comes the Greek root word demos meaning “people,” and “-graphic” means description or drawing. Demographic characteristics describe the outward characteristics of the audience. This textbook will discuss eleven of them below, although you might see longer or shorter lists in other sources. Some of them are obvious and some not as much. But before we get into the specific demographic characteristics, let’s look at three principles.
First, be careful not to stereotype on the basis of a demographic characteristic. Stereotyping is generalizing about a group of people and assuming that because a few persons in that group have a characteristic, all of them do. If someone were sitting near campus and saw two students drive by in pickup trucks and said, “All students at that college drive pickup trucks,” that would be both stereotyping and the logical fallacy of hasty generalization (see Chapter 14). At the same time, one should not totalize about a person or group of persons. Totalizing is taking one characteristic of a group or person and making that the “totality” or sum total of what that person or group is. Totalizing often happens to persons with disabilities, for example; the disability is seen as the totality of that person, or all that person is about. This can be both harmful to the relationship and ineffective as a means of communicating. If a speaker before a group of professional women totalizes and concludes that some perception of “women’s issues” are all they care about, the speaker will be less effective and possibly unethical.
Avoiding stereotyping and totalizing is important because you cannot assume everything about an audience based on just one demographic characteristic. Only two or three might be important, but in other cases, several demographic characteristics matter. The age of a group will be important in how they think about investing their money, but so will the socio-economic level, career or profession, and even where they live. Even their religious beliefs may come into it, since many religious groups have teachings about how much income should be given to charity. A good speaker will be aware of more than one or two characteristics of the audience.
Second, in terms of thinking about demographic characteristics, not all of them are created equal, and not all of them are important in every situation. When parents come to a PTA meeting, they are concerned about their children and playing the important role of “parent,” rather than being concerned about their profession. When senior citizens are thinking about how they will pay for their homes in retirement years, their ethnicity probably has less to do with it as much as their age and socio-economic level.
Third, there are two ways to think about demographic characteristics: positively and negatively. In a positive sense, the demographic characteristics tell you what might motivate or interest the audience or even bind them together as a group. In a negative sense, the demographic characteristic might tell you what subjects or approaches to avoid. Understanding your audience is not a game of defensive tic-tac-toe, but a means of relating to them.
For example, a common example is given about audiences of the Roman Catholic faith. Speakers are warned not to “offend” them by talking about abortion, since official Roman Catholic teaching is against abortion. However, this analysis misses three points. First, even if most Roman Catholics take a pro-life position, they are aware of the issues and are adults who can listen and think about topics. Additionally, not all Roman Catholics agree with the official church stance, and it is a complex issue. Second, Roman Catholics are not the only people who hold views against abortion. Third, and most important, if all the speaker thinks about Roman Catholics is that they are against something, the speaker might miss all the things the audience is for and what motivates them. In short, think about how the demographic characteristics inform what to talk about and how, not just what to avoid talking about.
There is one more point to be made about demographic characteristics before they are listed and explained. In a country of increasing diversity, demographic characteristics are dynamic. People change as the country changes. What was true about demographic characteristics—and even what was considered a demographic characteristic—has changed in the last fifty years. For example, the number of Internet users in 1980 was minuscule (mostly military personnel). Another change is that the percentage of the population living in the Great Lakes areas has dropped as the population has either aged or moved southward.
What follows is a listing of eleven of the more common demographic characteristics that you might use in understanding your audience and shaping your speech to adapt to your audience.
The first demographic characteristic is age. In American culture, we have traditionally ascribed certain roles, behaviors, motivations, interests, and concerns to people of certain ages. Young people are concerned about career choices; people over 60 are concerned about retirement. People go to college from the age of 18 to about 24. Persons of 50 years old have raised their children and are “empty nesters. These neat categories still exist for many, but in some respects they seem outdated.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2015), 38% of college students are over 25 years old. Some women and men wait until their late thirties to have children, and thus at 50 have preteens in the house. More and more grandparents are raising grandchildren, and some people foster or adopt children in their middle years. Combining the longer lives Americans are living with the economic recession of 2008 and following, 62 is no longer a reasonable age for retirement for many.
Therefore, knowing that your audience is 18, 30, 55, or 70 is important, but it is just one of many factors. In your classroom audience, for example, you may find 30-year-old returning, nontraditional college students, young entrepreneurs, 17-year-old dual enrollment students, and veterans who have done three or four tours in the Middle East as well as 18- or 19-year-old traditional college students.
The second demographic characteristic commonly listed is gender. This area is open to misunderstanding as much as any other. Despite stereotypes, not all women have fifty pairs of shoes with stiletto heels in their closets, and not all men love football. In almost all cases you will be speaking to a “mixed” audience of men and women, so you will have to keep both groups in mind. If you are speaking to a group of all men or all women and you are of the same gender as the audience, you might be able to use some appropriate common experiences to connect with the audience. However, if you are a woman speaking to an all-male audience or a man speaking to an all-female audience, those are situations in which to be aware of overall gender differences in communication.
According to Deborah Tannen (2007), a scholar of linguistics and a well-known author, men and women in the United States have divergent communication styles. She is quick to point out neither is all good or all bad, nor do they apply to every single person. The two communication styles are just different, and not recognizing the differences can cause problems, or “noise,” in communication. Although she normally applies these principles to family, marital, and work relationships, they can be applied to public speaking.
According to Tannen, women tend to communicate more inductively; they prefer to give lots of details and then move toward a conclusion. Other research on differences in gender communication indicate that women listen better, interrupt less, and collaborate more, although there is research to indicate this is not the case. (Keep in mind these are generalized tendencies, not necessarily true of every single woman or man.) Women tend to be less direct, to ask more questions, to use “hedges” and qualifiers (“it seems to me,” “I may be wrong, but…”) and to apologize more, often unnecessarily. Other research indicates women praise more, consequently expect more praise, and interpret lack of praise differently from how men do (Floyd, 2017).
This pattern of less direct communication ascribed to many women may not sound the same to men as it does to women. To men it may seem that a female speaker is unsure or lacks confidence, whereas the female speaker is doing it out of habit or because she thinks it sounds open-minded and diplomatic; possibly, the strategy has worked before and/or in most cases. Tannen calls women’s style of communication “rapport” style, whereas she labels male communication as more of a “report” style. Some communication scholars call these differences “expressive” (women) vs. informational (men) (Floyd 2017).
Male speakers, on the other hand, are more deductive and direct; they state their point, give limited details to back it up, and then move on. Men may be less inclined to ask questions and qualify what they say; they might not see any reason to add unnecessary fillers. Men also may tend toward basic facts, giving some the impression they are less emotional in their communication, which is a stereotype. Finally, men are socialized to “fix” things and may give advice to women when it is not really needed or wanted.
These generalized differences in communication by gender have led to much material for comedians and YouTube videos and much discussion and soul-searching about women’s supposed habitually apologizing. In some ways, these differences are traditional and some writers, especially women, are trying to help others avoid these patterns without losing the positive side of female or male communication differences. For example, books such as Lean In (Sandberg, 2013) are meant to teach women to negotiate for better salaries and conditions and avoid common communication behaviors that hurt their ability to negotiate. Also, many differences are situational and have to do with relative levels of power and other factors. However, it is unlikely these general tendencies are going to disappear any time soon.
Therefore, if you are a woman speaking to an all-male audience, be direct without mimicking “male talk.” It might be a good idea to avoid excessive detail and description; it will be seen as getting off topic. Do not follow the habit of starting sentences with “I don’t know if this is 100% correct, but…” or even worse, the habitual “I’m sorry, but…“ If on the other hand you are a male speaking to a primarily female audience, realize that women want knowledge but not to have their problems fixed. Men also seem abrupt when talking to women, and much research supports the conclusion that men talk more than women in groups and interrupt more. So, male speakers should allow time for questions and work hard at listening.
This section on gender has taken a typical, traditional “binary” approach. Today, more people openly identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female. Even those of us who identify as strictly male or female do not fully follow traditional gender roles. This is an area for growing sensitivity. At the same time, the purpose, subject, and context of the speech will probably define how and whether you address the demographic characteristic of gender.
Age and gender are the two main ways we categorize people: a teenaged boy, an elderly lady, a middle-aged man; a young mother. There are several other demographic characteristics, however.
Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
Race, ethnicity, and culture are often lumped together; at the same time, these categorizations can be controversial. We will consider race, ethnicity, and culture in one section because of their interrelationship although they are distinct categories
We might think in terms of a few racial groups in the world: Caucasian, African, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American. Each one of these has many ethnicities. Caucasian has ethnicities of Northern European, Arab, some South Asian people groups, Mediterranean, etc. Then each ethnicity has cultures. Mediterranean ethnicities include Greek, Italian, Spanish, etc., and then each of these has subcultures, and so on. It should be noted that many social scientists today reject the idea of race as a biological reality altogether and see it as a social construct. This means it is a view of humanity that has arisen over time and affects our thinking about others.
Unfortunately, dividing these categories and groups is not that easy, and these categories are almost always clouded by complicated political and personal concerns, which we do not have time or space to address here. Most audiences will be heterogeneous, or a mixture of different types of people and demographic characteristics, as opposed to homogeneous, very similar in many characteristics (a group of single, 20-year-old, white female nursing students at your college). Therefore, be sensitive to your audience members’ identification with a culture. Anglos are often guilty of confusing Hispanic (a language category) with cultures (a more regional or historical category), and overlooking that Mexican is not Puerto Rican is not Cuban is not Colombian. In the same way for Caucasians, a Canadian is not an Australian is not an American is not a Scot, just because their last names, basic looks, and language seem almost the same (well, sort of!). “American” itself is a problematic term since “American” can refer to every country in the Western Hemisphere.
As mentioned in a previous example, focus as much on the positives—what that culture values—rather than what the culture does not like or value. Now we turn to an even more complicated category, religion.
Religion, casually defined as beliefs and practices about the transcendent, deity, and the meaning of life, can be thought of as an affiliation and as a life commitment. According to polls, due to either family or choice, a majority of Americans (although the percentage is shrinking) have some kind of religious affiliation, identity, or connection. It may simply be where they were christened as an infant, but it is a connection—“I’m in that group.” About 23% of Americans are being called “nones” because they do not claim a formal religious affiliation (Pew Research, 2015).
On the other hand, a person may have an affiliation with a religious group but have no real commitment to it. The teaching and practices of the group, such as a denomination, may not affect the personal daily life of the member. Likewise, someone who has an affiliation may develop his or her own variations of beliefs that do not match the established organization’s doctrines. Unless the audience is brought together because of common faith concerns or the group shares the same affiliation or commitment, religious faith may not be relevant to your topic and not a central factor in the audience analysis. As with other categories, be careful not to assume or stereotype about religious groups.
Religion, like ethnicity and culture, is an area where you should be conscious of the diversity of your audience. Not everyone worships in a “church,” and not everyone attends a house of worship on Sunday. Not everyone celebrates Christmas the way your family does, and some do not celebrate it at all. Inclusive language, which will be discussed in Chapter 10, will be helpful in these situations.
Without getting into a sociological discussion, we can note that one demographic characteristic and source of identity for some is group affiliation. To what groups do the audience members’ predominantly belong? Sometimes it will be useful to know if the group is mostly Republican, Democrat, members of a union, members of a professional organization, and so on. In many cases, your reason for being the speaker is connected to the group identity. Again, be mindful of what the group values and what binds the audience together.
Region, another demographic characteristic, relates to where the audience members live. We can think of this in two ways. We live in regions of the country: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain region, Northwest, and West Coast. These regions can be broken down even more, such as coastal Southeastern states. Americans, especially in the East, are very conscious of their state or region and identify with it a great deal.
The second way to think about region is as “residence” or whether the audience lives in an urban area, the suburbs, or a rural area. If you live in the city, you probably do not think about being without cell phone or Internet service, but many people in rural areas do not take those for granted. The clubs that students in rural high schools belong to might be very different from what a student in a city would join.
Occupation may be a demographic characteristic that is central to your presentation. For the most part in the U.S., we choose our occupations because they reflect our values, interests, and abilities, and as we associate with colleagues in that occupation, those values, interests, and abilities are strengthened. You are probably in college to enter a specific career that you believe will be economically beneficial and personally fulfilling. We sometimes spend more time at work than any other activity, except sleeping. Messages that acknowledge the importance, diversity, and reasons for occupations will be more effective. At the same time, if you are speaking to an audience with different occupations, do not use jargon from one specific occupation. This idea is addressed more in Chapter 11.
The next demographic characteristic is education, which is closely tied to occupation and is often, though not always, a matter of choice. In the United States, education usually reflects what kind of information and training a person has been exposed to, but it does not necessarily reflect intelligence. An individual with a bachelor’s degree in physics or computer science will probably know a great deal more about those fields than someone with a Ph.D. in English. Having a certain credential is supposed to be a guarantee of having learned a set of knowledge or attained certain skills. Some persons, especially employers, tend to see achieving a credential such as a college degree as the person’s having the “grit” to finish an academic program (Duckworth, 2016). We are also generally proud of our educational achievements, so they should not be disregarded.
Socio-economic level, another demographic characteristic, is also tied to occupation and education in many cases. We expect certain levels of education or certain occupations to make more money. While you cannot know the exact pay of your audience members, you should be careful about references that would portray your own socio-economic level as superior to their own. Saying, “When I bought my BMW 7 Series” (a car that retails at over $80,000) would not make a good impression on someone in the audience who is struggling to make a car payment on her used KIA. One time a lawyer for a state agency was talking to a group of college professors about how she negotiated her salary. She mentioned that she was able to get her salary raised by an amount that was more than the annual salary of the audience members. Her message, which was a good one, was lost in this case because of insensitivity to the audience.
The next few demographic characteristics are more personal and may not seem important to your speech topic, but then again, they may be the most important for your audience. Sexual orientation, usually referred to by the letters LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-gendered, Queer), is a characteristic not listed in speech textbooks forty years ago. As acceptance of people of various sexual orientations and lifestyles becomes more common, we can expect that these differences will lead to people feeling free to express who they are and not be confined to traditional gender roles or stereotypes. For this reason, it is useful to employ inclusive language, such as “partner” or “spouse.”
Family status, such as whether the audience members are married, single, divorced, or have children or grandchildren may be very important to the concerns and values of your audience and even the reason the audience is brought together. For example, young parents could be gathered to listen to a speaker because they are concerned about health and safety of children in the community. Getting married and/or having a child often creates a major shift in how persons view the world, responsibilities, and priorities. A speaker should be aware if she is talking to single, married, divorced, or widowed persons and if the audience members are parents, especially with children at home.
Does this section on demographic characteristics leave you wondering, “With all this diversity, how can we even think about an audience?” If so, do not feel alone in that thought. As diversity increases, audience understanding and adaptation becomes more difficult. To address this concern, you should keep in mind the primary reason the audience is together and the demographic characteristics they have in common—their common bonds. For example, your classmates may be diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, or religion, but they have in common profession (all students) and region (living near or on the campus), group identity (campus organizations or major) as well as, possibly, other characteristics.
Perhaps your instructor will do an exercise in class that helps you explore the demographic characteristics displayed in your class audience. You might find that most live with their parents, or that 60% of them are planning to enter a health profession, or that one-third of them have children at home. Knowing these facts will help you find ways to choose topics, select approaches and sources for those topics, know when you should explain an idea in more detail, avoid strategies that would become barriers to communicating with the audience, and/or include personal examples to which the audience members can relate. In Chapter 4, we include case study exercises to bring together audience analysis in composing the foundational approach of the speech.
2.3 – Psychographic Characteristics
Whereas demographic characteristics describe the “facts” about the people in your audience and are focused on the external, psychographic characteristics explain the inner qualities. Although there are many ways to think about this topic, here the ones relevant to a speech will be explored: beliefs, attitudes, needs, and values.
Daryl Bem (1970) defined beliefs as “statements we hold to be true.” Notice this definition does not say the beliefs are true, only that we hold them to be true and as such they determine how we respond to the world around us. Stereotypes are a kind of belief: we believe all the people in a certain group are “like that” or share a trait. Beliefs are not confined to the religious realm but touch all aspects of our experience. Sports fans believe certain things about their favorite teams. Republicans and Democrats believe certain, usually different, principles about how the government should be run.
Beliefs, according to Bem, come essentially from our experience and from sources we trust.For example, a person may believe everyone should take public speaking because in their own experience the course helped them be successful in college and a career. Another person may believe that corporal punishment is good for children because their own parents–whom they love and trust–spanked them after their misbehavior.
Therefore, beliefs are hard to change—not impossible, just difficult. Beliefs are harder to change based on their level of each of these characteristics of belief:
- stability—the longer we hold them, the more stable or entrenched they are;
- centrality—they are in the middle of our identity, self-concept, or “who we are”;
- saliency—we think about them a great deal; and
- strength—we have a great deal of intellectual or experiential support for the belief or we engage in activities that strengthen the beliefs.
Beliefs can have varying levels of stability, centrality, salience, and strength. An educator’s beliefs about the educational process and importance of education would be strong (support from everyday experience and reading sources of information), central (how he makes his living and defines his work), salient (he spends every day thinking about it), and stable (especially if he has been an educator a long time). Beliefs can be changed, and we will examine how in Chapter 13 under persuasion, but it is not a quick process.
The next psychographic characteristic, attitude, is sometimes a direct effect of belief. Attitude is defined as a stable positive or negative response to a person, idea, object, or policy (Bem 1970). More specifically, Myers (2012) defines it as “a favorable or unfavorable evaluative reaction toward someone or something, exhibited in one’s beliefs, feelings, or intended behavior” (p. 36). How do you respond when you hear the name of a certain singer, movie star, political leader, sports team, or law in your state? Your response will be either positive or negative, or maybe neutral if you are not familiar with the object of the attitude. Where did that attitude come from? Psychologists and communication scholars study attitude formation and change probably as much as any other subject, and have found that attitude comes from experiences, peer groups, beliefs, rewards, and punishments.
Do not confuse attitude with “mood.” Attitudes are stable; if you respond negatively to Brussels sprouts today, you probably will a week from now. That does not mean they are unchangeable, only that, like beliefs, they change slowly and in response to certain experiences, information, or strategies. As with beliefs, we will examine how to change attitudes in the chapter on persuasion. Changing attitudes is a primary task of public speakers because attitudes are the most determining factor in what people actually do. In other words, attitudes lead to actions, and interestingly, actions leads to and strengthen attitudes. Think back to the TedTalk video by Dr. Amy Cuddy that you watched in Chapter 1. She explains that acting powerful and confident can strengthen your attitude of confidence.
We may hold a belief that regular daily exercise is a healthy activity, but that does not mean we will have a positive attitude toward it. There may be other attitudes that compete with the belief, such as “I do not like to sweat,” or “I don’t like exercising alone.” Also, we may not act upon a belief because we do not feel there is a direct, immediate benefit from it or we may not believe we have time right now in college. If we have a positive attitude toward exercise, we will more likely engage in it than if we only believe it is generally healthy.
As you can see, attitude and belief are somewhat complex “constructs,” but fortunately the next two are more straightforward. (A construct is “a tool used in psychology to facilitate understanding of human behavior; a label for a cluster of related but co-varying behaviors” [Rogelberg, 2007].) Values are goals we strive for and what we consider important and desirable. However, values are not just basic wants. A person may want a vintage sports car from the 1960s, and may value it because of the amount of money it costs, but the vintage sports car is not a value; it represents a value of either
- nostalgia (the person’s parents owned one in the 1960s and it reminds him of good times),
- display (the person wants to show it off and get “oohs” and “ahs”),
- materialism (the person believes the quip that “the one who dies with the most toys wins”),
- aesthetics and beauty (the person admires the look of the car and enjoys maintaining the sleek appearance),
- prestige (the person has earned enough money to enjoy and show off this kind of vehicle), or
- physical pleasure (the driver likes the feel of driving a sports car on the open road).
Therefore we can engage in the same behavior but for different values; one person may participate in a river cleanup because she values the future of the planet; another may value the appearance of the community in which she lives; another just because friends are involved and she values relationships. A few years ago political pundits coined the term “values voters,” usually referring to social conservatives, but this is a misnomer because almost everyone votes and otherwise acts upon their values—what is important to the individual.
The fourth psychographic characteristic is needs, which are important deficiencies that we are motivated to fulfill. You may already be familiar with the well-known diagram known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). It is commonly discussed in the fields of management, psychology, and health professions. A version of it is shown in Figure 2.1. Some recent versions show it with 8 levels.) It is one way to think about needs. In trying to understand human motivation, Maslow theorized that as our needs represented at the base of the pyramid are fulfilled, we move up the hierarchy to fulfill other types of need (McLeod, 2014).
According to Maslow’s theory, our most basic physiological or survival needs must be met before we move to the second level, which is safety and security. When our needs for safety and security are met, we move up to relationship or connection needs, often called “love and belongingness.” The fourth level up is esteem needs, which could be thought of as achievement, accomplishment, or self-confidence. The highest level, self-actualization, is achieved by those who are satisfied and secure enough in the lower four that they can make sacrifices for others. Self-actualized persons are usually thought of as altruistic or charitable. Maslow also believed that studying motivation was best done by understanding psychologically healthy individuals, and he also used child development to construct his model. (Maslow is not without his critics; see Neher, 1991).
In another course you might go into more depth about Maslow’s philosophy and theory, but the key point to remember here is that your audience members are experiencing both “felt” and “real” needs. They may not even be aware of their needs. In a persuasive speech one of your tasks is to show the audience that needs exist that they might not know about. For example, gasoline sold in most of the U.S. has ethanol, a plant-based product, added to it, usually about 10%. Is this beneficial or detrimental for the planet, the engine of the car, or consumers’ wallets? Your audience may not even be aware of the ethanol, its benefits, and the problems it can cause.
A “felt” need is another way to think about strong “wants” that the person believes will fulfill or satisfy them even if the item is not necessary for survival. For example, one humorous depiction of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (seen on Facebook) has the words “wifi” scribbled at the bottom of the pyramid. Another meme has “coffee” scribbled at the bottom of the hierarchy. As great as wifi and coffee are, they are not crucial to human survival, either individually or collectively, but we do want them so strongly that they operate like needs.
So, how do these psychographic characteristics operate in preparing a speech? They are most applicable to a persuasive speech, but they do apply to other types of speeches as well. What are your audience’s informational needs? What beliefs or attitudes do they have that could influence your choice of topic, sources, or examples? How can you make them interested in the speech by appealing to their values? The classroom speeches you give will allow you a place to practice audience analysis based on demographic and psychographic characteristics, and that practice will aid you in future presentations in the work place and community.
2.4 – Contextual Factors of Audience Analysis
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.
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 them know how much of a given topic can realistically be covered. Secondly, the speaker must practice to be sure that the 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, which we will address in detail in Chapter 11, 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.
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 longer presentation.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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, and presentation 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.
2.5 – Listening in Public Speaking Settings
To this point in the text, and for most of the rest of it, we focus on the “sending” part of the communication process. However, public speaking only works if there are listeners. Studying public speaking should make you a better listener because you see the value of the listener to the communication process and because you are more aware of what you do in a speech.
Listening is not the same thing as hearing. Hearing is a physical process in which sound waves hit your ear drums and send a message to your brain. You may hear cars honking or dogs barking when you are walking down the street because your brain is processing the sounds, but that does not mean that you are listening to them. Listening implies an active process where you are specifically making an effort to understand, process, and retain information.
Also, although both reading and listening are methods of taking in information, they are very different processes. You may have taken a learning styles inventory at some point and learned that you were either a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, or maybe a combination. Many of us have a strength in one of these areas, or at least a preference. Having a particular learning preference should never be used as an excuse; we learn in all three modes, depending on the context and subject matter, even if one is stronger. As one of the appendices will note, real research on learning styles is actually limited.
Also, when you read, you can go back and read a passage over and over until you understand it. This is more difficult in listening. If the message is recorded, you can play it over, but if the situation is a speech, once may be all you get. Many studies have been conducted to find out how long we remember oral messages, and often the level of memory from oral communication is not very high (Bostrom & Bryant, 1980).
In this section, we will focus on comprehensive listening, which is listening focused on understanding and remembering important information from a public speaking message. There are other “types” of listening, based on the context and purpose. The first is empathetic listening, for understanding the feelings and motivations of another person, usually with a goal to helping the person deal with a personal problem. For example, a friend tells you she is thinking about dropping out of college at the end of the semester. You would want to listen for the reasons and feelings behind her choice, recognizing that you might need to ask sensitive questions and not just start telling her what to do or talk about your own feelings. This video from Brene Brown gives a quick explanation of empathetic listening.
The second type of listening is appreciative, which takes place while listening to music, poetry, or literature or watching a play or movie. For example, knowing that the melodies of classical musical have a certain A-B pattern informs us how to listen to Mozart. To be good at this kind of listening, it helps to study the art form to learn the patterns and devices.
The third type is critical listening, which we will address in Chapter 14 in discussing critical thinking and logic. In critical listening the audience member is evaluating the validity of the arguments and information and deciding whether the speaker is persuasive and whether the message should be accepted.
Your Audience and Listening
With this understanding of how listening differs from other forms of message reception, we can think of public speaking as “linear in time.” It does not allow you to loop back, as in reading. For that reason, a speaker must make listening easier for the audience. The main way speakers achieve this is through planned redundancy. Planned redundancy refers to purposeful ways of repeating and restating parts of the speech to help the audience listen and retain the content.
The speaker uses a relevant introduction to emphasize the interest and importance of the subject, uses a preview of the main points to forecast the plan of the speech, uses connective statements between points to remind the audience of the plan and re-emphasize the content, and then uses an overall summary in the conclusion to help the audience remember or do something with the information. As mentioned before, you might not be able to “cover” or dump a great deal of information in a speech, but you can make the information meaningful through the planned redundancy as well as through examples, stories, support, and appeals.
A speaker can also help the audience’s listening abilities by using visual aids (discussed in Chapter 9), stories and examples (discussed in Chapter 7), audience interaction or movement at key points in the speech (if appropriate and if your instructor approves it), and specific attention-getting techniques (also discussed in Chapter 7).
In short, listening is hard work, but you can meet your audience half way by using certain strategies and material to make listening easier for them. At the same time, an audience member has a responsibility to pay attention and listen well. In the next section, we will look at how you can improve your listening ability in public speaking situations. We will not look at listening in private, group, or interpersonal communication settings. Those often require other skills such as empathy and paraphrasing in order to understand your communication partner fully and to meet his or her emotional needs. If a friend comes to you with a problem, he or she may be more interested in your concern than that you can recall back the content of what was shared or that you can give him or her advice.
Barriers to Listening
Since hearing is a physiological response to auditory stimuli, you hear things whether you want to or not. Just ask anyone who has tried to go to sleep with the neighbor’s dog barking all night. However, listening, really listening, is intentional and hard work. Several hundred years ago we lived in an aural world—by that is meant most people took in information through hearing. That is why you will often hear stories of great speakers who orated for two or three hours, and that was considered acceptable. It does not mean everyone stayed awake all the time, but it does mean that the majority did not find it unusual or impossible to listen for that long.
A famous historical example is that of the Gettysburg Address, that wonderful, concise speech by Abraham Lincoln given in November of 1863 to commemorate the battlefield of Gettysburg. It is a speech we still read and sometimes memorize as an example of powerful rhetoric. The speaker before Lincoln was Edward Everett, a renowned statesman of the time from Massachusetts, who spoke for over two hours. Today we prefer the Lincoln’s example of conciseness to Everett’s version. For historical reasons related to media usage and development over the centuries, we Western humans in the modern world just do not have the listening power we used to. Perhaps we do not need it, or due to neuroplasticity (“Definition of neuroplasticity,” 2015) our brains have adapted to other means of efficiently taking in information.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, some people are not strong aural learners. In that case, listening may not be a personal strength. However, that does not make listening unimportant or something we should not try to improve upon. Therefore, the first barrier to listening is our lack of capacity for it or a mindset that we do not listen well, whether from societal expectation or personal psychological preferences.
Another barrier to listening is the noisiness and constant distractions of our lives, something that you might not even be aware of if you have always lived in the world of Internet, cell phones, iPods, tablets, and 24/7 news channels. We are dependent on and constantly wired to the Internet. Focus is difficult. Not only do electronic distractions hurt our listening, but life concerns can distract us as well. An ill family member, a huge exam next period, your car in the shop, deciding on next semester’s classes—the list is endless. Hunger and fatigue hurt listening ability as well.
A third barrier to listening not often considered is that our minds can usually process much faster than a speaker can speak clearly. We may be able to listen, when really trying, at 200 words per minute, but few speakers can articulate that many words clearly; an average rate for normal speech is around 100-120 (Foulke, 1968). That leaves a great deal of time when the mind needs to pull itself back into focus. During those gaps, you might find it more enjoyable to think of lunch, the person you are dating, or your vacation at the beach.
Another barrier is distraction from the people around you. Perhaps the scent of their soap or shampoo is unpleasant to you. Perhaps they cannot put their cell phones down or perhaps they are whispering to each other and impeding your ability to hear the speaker clearly. Finally, the physical environment may make listening to a public speaker difficult.
Additionally, confirmation bias is a barrier to listening. This term means “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions” (Nickerson, 1998). Although the concept has been around a long time, we are more aware of confirmation bias today. It leads us to listen to news outlets and Internet sources that confirm what we believe already rather than being challenged to new ways of thinking by reading or listening to other sources of information. It can cause us to discount, reject, or re-interpret information to fit our preconceptions. Related to this barrier is simply prejudging a speaker from opening remarks, dismissing their topic or position at the outset due to perceived disagreement, or turning them off due to appearance or nonverbal behavior. This is not to discount that the importance of the introduction and delivery of a speech, only to say that prejudgment is a counterproductive behavior.
These are all the possible obstacles to listening, but there might also be reasons that are particular to you, the listener. Often we go into listening situations with no purpose; we are just there physically but have no plans for listening. We go in unprepared. We are tired and mentally and physically unready to listen well. We do not sit in a comfortable position to listen. We do not bring proper tools to listen, specifically to take notes. There is actually research to indicate that we listen better and learn/retain more when we take notes with a pen and paper then when we type them on a computer or tablet (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Add to this the ample research that shows how distracting open laptops are to other students. This research has led some professors to bar laptops from their classrooms (Patterson & Patterson, 2017; Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2017; Awwad & Awwad, 2013; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013).
This is not to even mention that the skill of the speaker influences your listening ability. We end up seeing Mr. Goethe’s point from Chapter 1. Communicating can be so difficult that we wonder how we can overcome all these obstacles. So what can we do about it?
What Can Be Done to Improve Listening?
The previous section explains barriers to good listening behavior and in a sense gives us the solutions. The key is to personalize this information and decide which of it relates to you. Your own barrier might be not coming prepared, being quick to prejudge, or allowing gadgets to distract you. Obviously, recognizing the cause of your poor listening is the first step to becoming a better listener. Here are some steps, in summary:
Believe that good listening in specific situations and improving your own listening behavior are important. You would not want to be called upon in a meeting at work when you were daydreaming or distracted by a cell phone. Consider listening in class and to your classmates’ speeches in the same way.
Since it is so easy to react to a speaker’s ideas with confirmation bias, go into listening knowing that you might disagree and that the automatic “turn off” tendency is a possibility. In other words, tell yourself to keep an open mind.
Be prepared to listen. This means putting away mobile devices, having a pen and paper, and situating yourself physically to listen (not slouching or slumping). Have a purpose in listening. In your speech class, one of your purposes should be mutual support of your classmates; you are all in this together. Your instructor might also require you to write responses to your classmates’ speeches.
When taking notes, keep yourself mentally engaged by writing questions that arise, especially if your instructor does not take questions until a break, and you might forget. This behavior will fill in the gaps when your mind could wander and create more of an interaction with the speaker. However, taking notes does not mean “transcribing” the speech or lecture. Whether in class or in a different listening situation, do not (try to) write everything the speaker says down. One, it’s not possible unless you know Gregg Shorthand or type really fast, and two, you will disengage your critical thinking and get too involved in typing rather than thinking. Instead, start with looking for overall purpose and structure, then for pertinent examples of each main point. Repetition or planned redundancy by a speaker usually indicates you should write something down.
For your own sake and that of your co-listeners, avoid temptations to talk to those sitting next to you. It is far more distracting to both the speaker and your co-listeners than you might think. Write down the questions for asking later. Our use of cellular devices in an audience can also be more of a distraction to others than we realize. There is a good reason the movie theaters play those announcements about turning your phone off before the feature!
This chapter has looked at the psychological and physical processes going on inside the audience during a speech. Being audience-centered and adapting to your audience involves knowing as much as is reasonably possible about them. Addressing a diverse audience is a challenge, and audiences are, in general, becoming more diverse and more aware of their diversity in the U.S. While diversity is a challenge, it is also an opportunity.
Something to Think About
Can you think of some ways that knowing the psychographic characteristics of your audience can influence your speech preparation? What values, needs, beliefs, and attitudes of your classmates should you consider?
Example topics: You want to give a persuasive speech to your classroom audience to encourage them to take a study abroad trip.
You want you audience to consider buying a MacBook Pro rather than a PC as their next laptop.
You want to persuade them that sponsoring a child in a poor country is a way to bring the child out of poverty.
You want them to volunteer in the next Special Olympics in your community.
Create a demographic characteristics list to analyze your audience by printing out this chart.
After completing this chart, discuss the types of topics and approaches to those topics you might consider based on this information.