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Communication skills: persuasion, audience analysis

Know Your Audience

You can't persuade your listeners if you don't know much about them. Knowing your listeners helps you to shape your message in a way that's most likely to gain their acceptance. That's all the more important when your goal is to persuade, and not simply to inform, your audience.

Persuasive speaking aims to convince people to take some form of action. To achieve that goal, you must get your listeners to change their attitudes and beliefs. Or you must reinforce the attitudes and beliefs they already hold.

That means you must have a thorough knowledge of your audience before you prepare your presentation. (For more information on audience analysis, see our article, You Talkin' To Me?)

What you should know.
Any number of factors can affect how your listeners will react. These can include their experience, education, job or professional background, age, gender, ethnic background, cultural differences, and more.

Do your listeners share common interests? What's their relationship to one another? What recent experiences, if any, have they had that could affect their readiness to accept your argument?

What will your listeners expect from you? Do they have high expectations you may not be able to fulfill? Are their expectations realistic? Are you prepared in any case to address those expectations?

These are just some of the questions you should be thinking of as you prepare. Ask as many questions as you think are relevant.

What do they already know?
You'll need to address your listeners at the level of their existing knowledge. So it's important to have a clear picture of what they already know. From that, you can build your presentation, adding information your listeners don't already have.

If, for example, your audience already has expertise in a given area, don't waste their time with unnecessary background. Start instead from what they already know. What additional information will they need to better understand and accept your message?

By the same token, if your listeners know little about your topic, you'll need to take that into account too, and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Think in terms of how much information your audience needs, not how much information you can provide. In some cases, you may want to provide additional information in a handout after your presentation.

"You'll need to address your listeners at the level of their existing knowledge."

Do they care?
Consider how much interest your listeners have in your topic. Is your message a high or a low priority for them? How much do they care?

If they have a high level of interest, you may be able to cut to the chase quickly, going directly to your key messages. If their level is low, you may have to build interest before getting to your main messages. You may, for example, need to open with an especially strong grabber-a hook that will get everyone's attention from the start.

Acknowledge audience attitudes and concerns.
You'll have a much better chance to persuade your listeners when you have some information about what they already think about your topic and even what they think about you.

What attitudes, biases, interests, or concerns might they have that could affect how they receive your message? Do they have strong opinions or feelings about your topic, or about you? Do they have deeply held beliefs you will need to address? To what extent are their egos and values likely to be a factor?

Is your audience likely to be friendly or hostile toward your point of view?

If they hold positive views about your topic and your messages, you'll be focusing chiefly on reinforcing those views and reciting the benefits your listeners will receive.

If they hold negative views, you'll need a different strategy. You'll have to anticipate their objections and prepare your responses. You may have to limit what you ask of your audience. You might start with points to get agreement from your audience, before moving to the more controversial parts of your presentation. You may even want to begin by listing opposing arguments, and then explain your own position.

Determining what can trigger strong emotions in your listeners-whether positive or negative-is an essential step. You may decide in the end that you can't completely satisfy everyone's concerns. But at least you can present your position strategically, while taking those concerns into account and through that, showing your own awareness and sensitivity.

Don't be shy about asking.
It's a sign that you care about your listeners and about addressing their interests and concerns. Presenters are often surprised, once they start asking, to discover how much they can learn about an audience ahead of time.

Information can come from any number of sources-including those conducting or sponsoring the meeting, others who have spoken to the same audience, and especially, from questioning some of those who will be attending your meeting. Of course, if your listeners are people you interact with regularly, this part of your job will be a lot easier.

As you prepare for your next presentation, make sure you base your plans on a detailed understanding of your audience. Focus on what matters most to them and what will help you lead them to your goal. To get underway and to make sure you stay on track, work with a communication expert.

This Issue

To make sure your audience analysis is on the mark, get some help from the experts. You can attend a presentation skills seminar that includes audience analysis techniques or work privately with one of our consultants to match your argument to your listeners. For more information, follow the links or give us a call at 1-800-874-8278 or outside the US, +1 201 894 8200.

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