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Leadership: Public Speaking Basics, Know Your Audience

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Article by: Nancy Tobler
June 8, 2015

Ask anyone what makes a “good” public speaker, and they will give you an answer. If you press them for details, you will receive a range of responses. I have heard such praise as, ‘He sounded so passionate’, ‘She told great stories’, ‘He was so funny’, ‘She looked so great’. The list goes on and on. The reason we cannot agree on what makes for a good public speaking is that the only universal rule of public speaking is “the audience decides what is effective and what is ineffective”. You read that correct. The speaker does not decide what is effective; the audience decides what is effective. Sometimes you will see a comedian “chide” an audience about why a particular joke was not funny. That is an attempt by the speaker to get the audience to see them as effective.

You may be asking “who says” the audience decides, and what aspects of speaking do audiences use in the decision? You may be asking, what proof exists that the audience decides?

Globalization has taught us this powerful lesson. Most people who speak internationally can recount a faux pas they made when they first started speaking internationally—a mistake that wouldn’t have been a mistake in their native country. You can also go listverse.com and see the 10 worst diplomatic faux pas by famous politicians. The fact that the rules of appropriateness vary international is obvious; however research on international public speaking is limited. In the U.S. we typically believe that international speakers should conform to our norms. The question of how a different audience might perceive a speech is not considered a big issue. I did find one research study completed for a competition for Chinese learners in public speaking in English. The research suggests that native and nonnative speakers of English do evaluate speeches differently.

The next question is what audiences look at when deciding if a speaker is effective. Public speaking connections with the audience can vary from how a person gestures or dresses, to the organization of the speech, to the topic of the speech. It is easy to find examples of improper dress or gestures (look up public speaking faux pas). Another difference by culture or audience is how the culture organizes a speech. For example, in the U.S. speeches in organizational settings have an introduction, body and conclusion. However, in many cultures, a speech is organized around a story. The entire speech is one story. Ted Talks provide a range of examples of this method. One example of a speech that follows a story is by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She uses her story to demonstrate the importance of allowing for a range of stories to be told. What this means is that you need to understand how your audience expects you to give them information. Do they want it in a story where you pick out the main ideas to apply to life or do they expect to have a clear roadmap to a specific conclusion?

Another difference in audiences comes in what topics are accepted by what audiences? Every culture has a set of topics that are acceptable or unacceptable. One topic that MLM or network marketers may need to consider is the topic of money. Some cultures are uncomfortable talking about making money. Some cultures are uncomfortable talking about using friendships to make money. When you approach the question of what you should speak about, you will need to find someone who knows the culture and get a feel for the best way to approach the topic of making money or selling products.

Audiences also differ on how they see humor. What is seen as funny is not universal. Even within cultures, the type of humor differs. Even more important, the humor used in speech varies. Some cultures see someone that uses humor as less credible.

As you consider your public speaking opportunities, one of the best ways to maximize your effectiveness is to ask people who are typical of your audience to give you examples of people who are good at public speaking. Look at the examples they give, and consider the topics, the structure, the evidence, and how the speaker uses humor. Effective speaking is a wonderful opportunity to build your business. Take the opportunity to speak as often as possible. Before and after you speak, look at what goes well with each particular audience.

Dhanesh, G. (2011). Speaking to a global audience Public Speaking Project. www.publicspeakingproject.org.

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Nancy Tobler

Nancy Tobler has a PhD in communication from the University of Utah. She specializes in research on how organizations change,...

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