With studies showing the fear of public speaking ranks up there with the fear of death, speakers are often advised to picture their audience naked.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to strip the audience bare to communicate effectively. But you do need to become intimately familiar with who your audience will be before deciding whether to give a speech or what to say.

Once you know your audience, you can best determine the goals for your presentation, the messages that will interest that audience and the best time and the best platform for reaching that audience.



To get a clear picture of the audience, visualize someone you know in the audience who is typical of the group. Or if you don’t know anyone who fits that description, create that person by asking yourself questions such as: How old is this person? What does this person do for a living? If you were sitting across the dinner table from this person, how would you communicate the messages you wish to convey?

A key question: Would this person even be interested in a speech? Or might he or she prefer a roundtable discussion, a question-and-answer session or some other format?

For instance, when a client asked us to speak to a group upset about upcoming changes, we decided a roundtable discussion would be more effective than a speech. The audience members expressed their concerns. We listed suggested strategies and got a show of hands as to which ones were priorities. In this way, the presentation accomplished its goal: We identified the audience’s chief concerns and collectively decided the best solutions.


All communications should have a clear goal. It may be to persuade, convince or enlist support. Whatever the goal for that group, virtually all communication should also seek to inform and entertain. Once the goal is established, it’s much easier to structure a presentation to accomplish that goal while also informing and entertaining the audience.

For instance, the goal for a recent presentation was to determine communication strategies for increasing immunization rates among minority groups. Knowing the audience – an immunization advocacy association – had little knowledge of effective communication techniques, we spoke for about 15 minutes to educate the group on communication techniques, using cartoons and funny examples to inform, entertain and engage the group.

Then we asked a series of questions that drew the group’s input on the best messages for improving immunization rates and strategies for delivering those messages. At the end of the session, we had crafted an outline for a communications program.


Once you’ve established your goals, determine your central thesis or title. Then decide on your three or four major points. The audience can’t absorb many more than that. Each main point should have between two to four substantiating points. These are data, anecdotes and examples to support your main point.

At this point, you may be tempted to create a PowerPoint. That’s fine if it helps construct your speech. But please consider not showing it to the audience while you’re speaking. A PowerPoint will turn you into a reader (instead of a speaker). It also takes the audience’s eyes and minds off you.

Instead, print out the PowerPoint and hand it out afterward. Or, if you must show something, use your PowerPoint to illustrate your points and entertain by showing the audience a cartoon, photo, video clip or other illustration.

Also remember the golden rule of public speaking: Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell the audience what you told them. Briefly summarize your presentation at the outset, deliver your messages and then summarize briefly at the end. Don’t forget to leave the audience with the action you wish it to take.


Finally, try to control when and where you’ll be delivering your presentation. If it’s a conference or day-long meeting of some sort, try to avoid the after-lunch and end-of-the-day slots when the audience is ready for a nap. Check the room ahead of time to be sure the sound system works. Eschew the podium, if possible, to actively engage the audience.

When you have no choice on your timing and location, look for ways to liven it up. At an end-of-the-day presentation at an association’s annual conference, the state lottery was among the topics to be discussed. So we distributed scratch-off lottery tickets to members of the audience who asked questions. No one won, but we had fun seeing if they did.

  1. HAVE FUN!

Above all else, be yourself. Have fun with whatever format and message you choose because if you’re not having fun, your audience won’t either.

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