Adapting to Your Audience

Read this advice on how you can read your audience and respond to their feedback during your presentation.

Solicit Information

Use direct observation of small audiences and use interviews, surveys and Likert rating scales to collect data about larger audiences.

Key Takeaways

  • Use direct observation of members of the potential audience to find out about them and collect data through interviews, surveys and rating scales for opinions.
  • Direct observation allows you to get to know the members of the audience personally by using your own senses such as hearing, sight and perhaps smell.
  • An interview is a conversation between two people (the interviewer and the interviewee) for obtaining information by asking open, closed, mirror and probing questions.
  • The basic questionnaire is a survey consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents in your audience.
  • Use a Likert-type rating scale of attitudes to find out how strongly the audience agrees or disagrees with your thesis. For example, Public Speaking is my favorite subject. (Circle one) 1. Strongly disagree 2. Disagree 3. Neither agree nor disagree 4. Agree 5. Strongly agree.

Key Terms

  • Rating scale: A rating scale is a set of categories designed to elicit information about an attribute. In the social sciences, common examples are the Likert scale and 1-10 rating scales in which a person selects the number which is considered to reflect the perceived quality of a product.
  • Computer-assisted web interviewing: An Internet surveying technique in which the interviewer follows a script provided in a website. The questionnaires are made in a program for creating web interviews. The program is able to customize the flow of the questionnaire based on the answers provided, as well as information already known about the participant.
  • Questionnaire: A questionnaire is a type of survey consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents.

Collecting Information about Your Particular Audience

So how do you go about collecting information about your particular audience? There are several useful methods to consider, including (1) direct observation of members of the potential audience, and (2) data collection through interviews surveys, and rating scales for opinions.

Direct Observation

Direct observation allows you to get to know the members of your audience personally. You are making observations of audience members through your own senses such as hearing, sight, and perhaps smell. You can employ this method in a classroom or small group situation through conversations with others and by listening to what they say.

However, you will want to guard against introducing your own egocentric biases into the observation. Our human senses do not function like a video camcorder, impartially recording all observations. Thus two people can view the same audience and come away with entirely different perceptions of it, even disagreeing about simple facts. This is why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

Interviews, Surveys, and Rating Scales



Photo of an man being interviewed

Interview: Lars G Nilsson interviews Thed Björk for Viasat Motor at Anderstorp Raceway in 2012.

An interview is a conversation between two people–the interviewer and the interviewee –that involves asking questions to obtain information. Generally, you will be using the four different types of questions which follow:

  • Open-ended questionsQuestions that ask who, what, where, when, why, and how are generally good open-ended questions. An open-ended question requires the respondent to reply with more information than a yes or no answer. For example, "Tell me about what kind of music you listen to", will probably get you a lot more information than "Do you like to listen to death metal?" This will only require "yes" or "no".

  • Closed questions. When you need a yes or no answer or when you want the other person to provide you with a specific answer from among a set of choices, use closed questions. Closed means that you only have specific options, and no other choices. "Do you spend more time texting at home, work or school?" is a closed question with three choices.

  • Probe for more informationAfter a respondent answers a question, you can probe to get clarification or more information. By asking probing questions you can tailor the interview, as it is occurring.

  • Mirror questions reflect the previous content back to the interviewee. A mirror question can be used to probe for more information or to provide a summary for the interviewee to agree, correct, or expand upon.

Avoid leading questions. A leading question is one that virtually guarantees that the interviewee will reply with the desired answer. For example, "Wouldn't you prefer X?" indicates what you want the interviewee to prefer. You do not find out what the interviewee really thinks.

For large audiences, you could use computer-assisted web interviewing (CAWI).


The basic questionnaire is a survey consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents. Questionnaires have advantages over other types of surveys in that they are cheap, do not require as much effort from the questioner as verbal or telephone surveys, and often have standardized answers that make it simple to compile data. For example, you might have a question with easy scorable multiple choice answers such as:

What is your marital status?

  1. Single
  2. Married
  3. Divorced
  4. Partnered

Example of Likert Scale

Likert Scale: An example of a Likert Scale using five Likert items pertaining to Wikipedia.

Likert-Type Testing of Attitudes and Opinions

Do you want to find out if members of the audience share the same attitudes or agree or disagree with your thesis? You can use a Likert-type rating scale of attitudes. A Likert item is simply a statement where the respondent is asked to evaluate according to any kind of subjective or objective criteria; generally, the level of agreement or disagreement is measured. Often five ordered response levels are used. Look at the Likert Scale in the example, to see the format of the typical five-level Likert item which is:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Agree
  5. Strongly agree

Tips for Speakers

Photo of someone filling out a survey

Questionnaire: Visitors at the youth fair "YOU" complete a questionnaire on Wikipedia.

Finally, when interviewing remember to allow the interviewee time to respond to your question without interrupting. Also, leave a few brief pauses between one question and the next so the interviewee can supply additional information. Or, probe before moving on to the next question. Usually, you want to prepare a list of questions in advance and move from more general to specific questions.

When using a questionnaire or using rating scales it is wise to try them out on a small sample of your audience before you administer them to a large group. You can use the small sample to make sure that everyone understands the meaning of the questions and that you are getting useful information. You can collect the data directly or you can use computer-assisted web-based surveys or interviewing questionnaires.

Make Adjustments

Apply knowledge about the audience to adjust the message before speaking. Observe and process audience responses to further adjust while speaking.

Key Points

  • Use the information about the specific audience to adapt the message to the audience while preparing a speech.
  • Consider ways to find common ground with the audience in order to adapt analogies, vocabulary, quoted sources of authority, and dialect to the audience, while also avoiding jargon.
  • With a face-to-face audience in a small room, observe the non-verbal reactions such as looks of confusion or expressions of agreement or disagreement.
  • With a large face-to-face audience or a remote audience, use an audience response system or SMS via cell phone to collect responses and respond to questions.

Key Terms

  • Diction: The writer's or the speaker's distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression in a poem or story.

Adapting the Message to the Audience During Preparation

A public speaker can use information about the audience to adapt his or her message to a particular audience while preparing the speech. Demographic information helps the speaker anticipate the audience and imagine how they will respond to different aspects of the message. While structuring the message, the speaker should keep his or her imagined, theoretical audience in mind and anticipate how they might respond to the speech as follows:

  • What experiences and events does the speaker share with the audience? In what ways is the speaker similar to the audience? The speaker can then apply this knowledge in his or her message to meet the audience on common ground and identify with them.

  • Analogies involve the linking of the unknown to the familiar. What examples or analogies can the speaker use that the audience is likely to find familiar?

  • Speakers should use words that the audience will understand. This is sometimes referred to as diction, which is the speaker's selection of the right words and style of expression.

  • Beware of jargon or specialized language. The language that the speaker is familiar with from sports or work may not be familiar to an audience that does not participate in the same sport or work environment.

  • If the speaker comes from a different language culture than the audience or speaks a different dialect, he or she must be careful to select phrases and words that the audience would use to encode the speech's message.

  • The speaker may have to set aside his or her own attitudes, values, and beliefs in order to temporarily adopt the viewpoint of the audience. What sources will the audience accept as authorities that might be different from the authorities that the speaker cites to support his or her arguments, or beliefs?

  • If the audience may react negatively to some portion of the message or not understand it, the speaker should change that portion before delivery.

Adapting the Message to the Audience While Delivering the Speech

Speakers are encouraged to plan to adapt during the speech. With a face-to-face audience in a small room, the speaker can observe non-verbal reactions such as looks of confusion or expressions of agreement or disagreement, and adjust the message accordingly.

An audience at the Dot Org Boom Seminar on April 12, 2005, at Finland's Embassy in Stockholm

Adapting to the Audience: When giving a speech in a small room, the speaker can see the audience's reaction and adapt accordingly.

The speaker can also encourage the audience to ask questions. Traditionally, the speaker asks for questions after the speech is finished; however, this is not always the case. The speaker can guide the audience to ask questions throughout the speech by simply pausing between points, or politely asking the audience to hold all questions until the end. If audience members will not hold all questions until the end, the speaker should be prepared for interruptions and rehearse accordingly.

With a larger face-to-face audience, a speaker may want to use an audience response system (ARS), also known as a clicker, to determine what the audience understands or what their current opinions are. ARS systems work with the audience's WI-FI enabled notebooks, laptops, or other hand-held computers. If the speaker's computer is also Wi-Fi-enabled, then he or she can display the responses on a screen while speaking and adapt the message accordingly. ARS systems can be used for large audiences anywhere in a classroom, lecture hall, or when speaking by teleconference.

Photo of a clicker response system

Audience Response System: An audience response system helps the speaker adapt during a speech.

Cell phones using SMS response systems are another way for the speaker to collect information and adapt during the speech. Cell phone-enabled response systems, such as SMS Response System, are able to take text inputs from the audience and receive multiple responses to questions per SMS. For facilities that do not have the equipment to analyze the SMS data during the speech, the audience can send tweets to the speaker, using a hashtag that is unique to the occasion or presentation. The tweets can be displayed as part of a back channel from remote audiences or members of large audiences using their smartphones, and the speaker can respond to the tweets or adapt his or her message in real time.

Source: Lumen Learning,
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Last modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 3:37 PM