“Know your audience” is an hoary folk-wisdom kind of phrase that we’ve all heard and said at some point.
But what does it mean?
It’s almost like an incantation, similar to that trusty chestnut make eye contact!
So what’s this mysterious . . . know your audience?
Many of us in the presentation enterprise define it to our taste to mean what we want it to mean.
And that’s where we go wrong.
Hector that Audience! Show ’em Who’s Boss!
“But the audience should want to learn this.”
Invariably I hear this lament, or something akin to it. A plaintive whine, really.
“The audience shouldn’t care how I dress/sound/gesture/move/squint/laugh inappropriately/show bad slides. The audience should adapt to my style . . . which, frankly, is just fine.”
“The audience ought to appreciate a gender-enlightened method of speaking!”
I have actually heard this.
Elaborate explanations follow as to why the audience should do this or be that, or simply doesn’t appreciate what the speaker has to offer in the way it’s offered. Self-righteous and even haughty explanations follow.
And of course, all of this springs from premises as rotten as a plank in a 19th century waterfront pier.
The Audience Marketplace Judges You
The marketplace is a wondrous place with much power seething below the surface.
It gives feedback with ruthless honesty.
It doesn’t give a damn what anyone learned in a philosophy course as a grad student. It thumbs its nose at the idealism of what “ought” to be.
If you have a product that nobody’s buying, no amount of hectoring will change that.
Knowing that marketplace means know your audience.
And know your audience means inspiring your listeners, not hectoring them. It means giving them a chance to be a hero. Every audience wants and needs that, and it’s your job to give it to them.
Not to lecture them on their sins and on your supposed superiority.
They don’t want to hear from Indiana Jones. They want to be Indiana Jones.
Many sources are ensconced on the web that address the issue of know your audience . . . in different ways and to different purposes. Here’s one for engineers, for example. Here’s another for marketers. And here is yet another for general communication purposes.
A Powerful Example of Know Your Audience
One of the greatest public speaking instructional films available is A Time to Kill, based on the novel by John Grisham. The film is filled with presentation examples and powerful scenes that illustrate great presentation techniques.
“Know your audience” is exemplified in a powerful scene toward the end of the film, the night before the closing arguments are to be made in a murder trial. The defendant, Samuel L. Jackson, urges his lawyer Matthew McConaghey, to get inside the heads of the jurors.
Jackson reveals to McConaughey the key to the case – emotional involvement of the jury, and this means know your audience.
Here is the powerful Jackson monologue, urging McConaughey to know your audience when the stakes are life itself:
America is a wall and you are on the other side. How’s a black man ever going to get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and in the jury box? My life in white hands? You Jake, that’s how.
You are my secret weapon because you are one of the bad guys, you don’t mean to be but you are – it’s how you was raised. Nigger, Negro, black, African-American, no matter how you see me, you see me different, you see me like that jury sees me, you are them.
Now throw out your points of law Jake. If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free? That’s how you save my ass. That’s how you save us both.
View the entire film for a powerful lesson in speaking and in knowing your audience. The trailer appears here . . .
For more insight on how to analyze and to know your audience, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.