So often speakers preparing a speech start with their passion, their expertise, or their response to an invitation. But what does your audience want? And is it helpful to begin preparation for a speech with that question?
The answer to the second question is, of course, yes. It is helpful because it focuses your attention in the right way: on the audience from the start. That doesn’t mean you’re going to pander to the audience. It does mean that you understand that a communication hasn’t been successful unless it has been received.
The answer to the first question is more complicated. Audiences want any number of things, and particular audiences have particular wants. But nonetheless it’s useful to think about audiences in general to understand what they’re looking for in that hour of magic when you get to have the stage and the audience’s attention all to yourself.
As it happens, some research a number of years ago found that audiences want two things primarily from a speaker: trust and credibility. That is, the audience wants you to be expert in your field, and to be able to generate trust with that audience.
The credibility piece is easy to understand – audiences value expertise. Naturally enough, audiences want you to know what you’re talking about. Simple.
But how do you create trust?
That’s a trickier connection to establish. Trust, after all, takes time. If we’re to truly trust one another, then we have to see each other over a period of weeks, at least, or months or years, and in many different kinds of situations, so that we can establish a track record with each other. That way we can come to trust each other that we are always going to do what we say.
You don’t have the luxury of much time with an audience, so instead to you have to take them through an experience that changes them. You have to change their minds. Then, they will trust you because they have come to think a new way and you are the cause.
So the first question to ask yourself when preparing a speech is the following. The audience wants to trust me and find me credible. How do I demonstrate expertise and change its mind about something – and what is that topic, point of view, or idea?
We’ll trust you if you can make us think in a new way.
Audiences want a couple of other things from their speakers as well. Audiences want to be entertained, so put a little fun in with your weighty discussion of the economic lessons of Weimar Germany, or the Mongol Invasion, or leadership today.
They also want an experience, one that makes them feel special for that hour. So figure out how you can be different from other speakers and offer the audience something they can’t get from every other person who talks about social media, say. Figure out how you’re going to be authentically and uniquely you.
Audiences also want something from a speaker that they can’t get from her book, or video or other online source. So ask yourself, what am I going to offer during the in-person session that is unique, irreproducible, and inherently part of the live experience? That way audience members can believe that it was worth it – they made a smart decision going to a particular live event. As our world becomes more and more virtual, that question becomes more and more important.
Establish credibility with your expertise. Establish trust with your ability to change the participants’ minds about something that matters to them. Entertain your audience. Give them something they can only get from you. And give them something they can’t get online or in a book – something live. That’s it; that’s what audiences want.