Audience understanding: some types and tips

When talking about presentations and impressing your audience with a well-designed and effective set of slides, we often speak of the audience as if it were a monolith. Far from it. There are audiences and there are audiences.

We’ve spoken on this blog about knowing your audience, in terms of composition and expectation. In today’s post, we look at the taxonomy or classification of audiences, as broadly outlined by Edward Lowe, and share our own thoughts on each category:

1. The uninformed audience: This may seem like the most difficult audience to present to. If your audience has no prior knowledge about the topic you are presenting, you might feel a huge pressure of having not only to impress them, but to educate them. Our advice is simple – and relates back to our basic principles – make a script and tell the story! You might have to work a bit harder at collating and assembling facts, figures and anecdotes for this uninformed audience, but once you have it all in place, your work is cut out for you. Such an audience is likely to receive and absorb your presentation with greater attentiveness and curiosity than one with too much prior information. And you can leverage this further by weaving in Q&A and other such interactive ideas in order to bring them into the picture, and make the journey from ignorance to knowledge, with you!

2. The apathetic audience: Simple put, this is the audience that doesn’t care what you say or how well you say it. We feel this is really the trickiest audience to  engage with, leave alone impress. Here’s what can work for such an audience – one, keep your radar alert… You can sense the apathy 2 or 3 slides into your presentation. Don’t be unnerved by it. Keep a back-up of high-energy life-related points up your sleeve. Even the most apathetic audience is likely to be interested in something that touches their lives. For example, in 2020 no one could be apathetic about statistics (not everyone’s favorite subject) because everyone was interested in the figures related to the pandemic. No one is indifferent to a good joke. Make them laugh, and you’re one step closer to converting apathy into interest.

3. The favorable audience: This is the kind we always hope to get! Those who are already kindly disposed towards you – and likely to receive your presentation with open minds and positive feedback. However, this is a danger zone for those who take a favorable audience for granted. Just because you know they’re on your side doesn’t mean you can be casual or careless in your presentation. Instead, it’s wise to build on the positives, and turn them to your advantage through active participation, affirmative action and the next level of buy-in.

4. The hostile audience: How scary that can be! Especially if you are unprepared. What makes sense in such scenarios is to counter any aggression or resistance with a calm and persuasive command over your material and your knowledge. Countering an argumentative or disbelieving tone with courtesy goes a long way towards defusing situations and making them give you the benefit of the doubt. Here is where your skills as a speaker and your diligence as a researcher will come to the fore. It’s easier to be hostile to an random statement than to one backed up by solid data. So, if you face such an audience, take a deep breath and say, “I see what you mean… However…” or “Let’s agree to disagree…” and move on to the next point.

5. The mixed audience: This, we feel, is the one you will most likely encounter, most of the time. A mixture of individual attitudes, and a mixed bag of reactions. Remember that the nature of an audience is revealed mainly during the interactive sessions, especially live Q&A. Moderating questions that come in is key to handling mixed audiences with the same style and substance that your best presentations are known to have.

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Professional presenters (especially speakers) are good at gauging audience types and adapting on the spot. For those who are just getting the hang of it – don’t be disheartened – there are ways in which you can get yourself audience-ready in advance… Look out for our next post!