4 Audience Analysis

Understanding Your Audience

In this chapter . . .

In this chapter, we will consider the role of the audience in determining the full speaking occasion. What factors about your audience will be the most important in maximizing the effectiveness of your communication? What ethical considerations must be considered? How does your identity intersect with the audience?

Who is your audience? For a speech to be public, it requires an audience, even if that audience is virtual or imagined. When you give a speech, the audience isn’t merely a passive witness, but instead is actively creating a relationship with you. Communication is a two-way street. Therefore, it’s important to consider the needs of the audience in both the construction and delivery of your speech.

How large will the audience be? Do you personally know the members of the audience? Is it your classmates, colleagues, friends and family, or the general public? Are they all members of a particular organization? Are you a part of the same group as your audience or are you an outsider? What is their age range and other demographic factors? Did they choose to hear you speak or was it a requirement? What is their experience and interest level in your topic?

The audience is gathered because of a common interest, commitment, or responsibility. What is it? Everything you do in the speech should be relevant to that reason for their being there. What does the audience expect as to type of speech, length, kinds of sources used, and presentation aids or lack of them?

In this chapter, we’ll take a closer look at how a public speaker can understand their anticipated audience.

Ethical Audience Analysis

Every ten years, the United States conducts a nationwide survey of the population of our country. With each census, the questionnaire is revised. For example, on the 1920 census is a question about “color or race” has no enumerators for Hispanic origin. In 2020, our most recent census, the questionnaire included a range of enumerators including Latino, Mexican, Chicano, and Cuban. In 1920, the census simply inquired “Sex” in question number nine, whereas the 2020 census specified “Male” and “Female.” It instructed respondents to “Mark ONE box.” Will that change in the next census, in 2030?

The U.S. Census is an extraordinary but imperfect way of gathering information about the population of the United States. It also demonstrates that what we know about any group of people is a product of what we are capable of asking.

As a public speaker, what are you capable of asking? For some speech occasions, you might be able to conduct an audience survey. For most speech occasions, the person who is organizing the event should be able to tell you something about who will be in the audience. From this information you may be able to make reasonable assumptions about your audience. For example, if you have been asked to speak at a university student governance meeting, you can assume that everyone in the room shares at least an education level (H.S. diploma) and a group affiliation (students). You can safely assume that most will be between the ages of 18 and 22, but you can’t assume the audience is comprised of a single religion, race, or ethnicity.

While audience analysis is useful, it also has its limitations. Demographic and psychographic factors discussed in this chapter can help you understand something about who your audience might be, what they might know, and what they might care about. But if you don’t use the information wisely or if you’re not careful about your assumptions, you’ll find yourself stereotyping or totalizing. 

Stereotyping is generalizing about a group of people and assuming that because a few people in that group have a characteristic, all of them do.

Totalizing is taking one characteristic of a group or person and making that the “totality” or sum total of what that person or group is. If a speaker before a group of professional women totalizes and concludes that some perception of “women’s issues” are all they care about, the speaker will be less effective and possibly unethical.

Being ethical about audience analysis means avoiding unlikely assumptions, stereotyping, and totalizing. Below are more detailed descriptions of demographic and psychographic factors in audience analysis.

Demographic Factors

Demographic factors are aspects of an individual’s identity that determine their place in society and membership in particular subcultures. They can be measured socially. One way to think of demographics is the “facts” of an individual. This consists of the type of questions you find on medical or government forms.

Common Demographic Categories


We traditionally ascribe certain roles, behaviors, motivations, interests, and concerns to people of certain ages. Young people are concerned about career choices; people over 60 are concerned about retirement. People go to college from the age of 18 to about 22. People 50 years old have raised their children and are “empty nesters. These neat categories still exist for many, but in some respects, they are outdated.


The second demographic characteristic commonly listed is gender. This area is open to misunderstanding as much as any other. Today, more people openly identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female. Even those of us who identify as male or female don’t fully follow traditional gender roles. This is an area for growing sensitivity. At the same time, the purpose, subject, and context of the speech will probably define how and whether you address the demographic characteristic of gender.


Unless the audience is brought together because of common faith concerns or the group shares the same affiliation or commitment, religious faith may not be relevant to your topic and not a crucial factor in the audience analysis. As with other categories, be careful not to assume or stereotype about religious groups. You should be conscious of the diversity of your audience. Not everyone worships in a church, and not everyone attends a house of worship on Sunday. Be attentive to inclusive language.

Group Affiliation

One source of identity for some is group affiliation. To what groups do members of the audience predominantly belong? Sometimes it will be useful to know if the group is mostly Republican, Democrat, members of a union, members of a professional organization, and so on. Be mindful of what the group values and what binds the audience together.


Region relates to where the audience members live. We can think of this in two ways. We live in regions of the country: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountain region, Northwest, and West Coast. These regions can be broken down even more, such as coastal Southeastern states. The second way to think about region is as “residence” or whether the audience lives in an urban area, the suburbs, or a rural area.


Occupation may be a demographic characteristic that is central to your presentation. For the most part in the U.S., we choose our occupations because they reflect our values, interests, and abilities, and as we associate with colleagues in that occupation, those values, interests, and abilities are strengthened.


The next demographic characteristic is education, which is closely tied to occupation and is often, though not always, a matter of choice. In the United States, education usually reflects what kind of information and training a person has been exposed to, but it does not reflect intelligence. We are also generally proud of our educational achievements, so they should not be disregarded.

Socio-economic Level

Socio-economic level is also tied to occupation and education in many cases. Often, you can’t know the socio-economic level of your audience members, you should be careful about references that would portray your own level as superior.

Family Status

Family status, such as whether the audience members are married, single, divorced, or have children or grandchildren may be particularly important to the concerns and values of your audience and even the reason the audience is brought together. For example, young parents could gather to listen to a speaker because they are concerned about the health and safety of children in the community.

Race and Ethnicity

In some areas, it’s necessary to gather demographic information about race and ethnicity. For example, a university wants to measure the diversity of their student body. But for the purposes of audience analysis, the most ethical way to think about the category of race and ethnicity is to minimize your assumptions about homogeneity and maximize understanding of diversity. Many people identify as multiracial and rare is the person who can identify with only one ethnicity. Race and ethnicity can’t be judged only by appearance. As a casual public speaker and not a demographer, you’re not equipped with the information to know about your audience’s racial and ethnic identity if that information isn’t specifically communicated to you. Rather than make erroneous assumptions, embrace as a probability that your audience is comprised of a diversity of races and ethnicities.

Psychographic Factors

Psychographic factors are psychological characteristics that determine how a person thinks. While these factors are most important during a persuasive speech, they may be applicable to any type of speech.

Common Psychographic Factors


Beliefs are statements we hold to be true. Notice this definition does not say the beliefs are true, only that we hold them to be true and as such they determine how we respond to the world around us. Beliefs touch all aspects of our experience. Beliefs come from our experience and from sources we trust. Therefore, beliefs are hard to change—not impossible, just difficult.


Attitude is defined as a stable positive or negative response to a person, idea, object, or policy. How do you respond when you hear the name of a certain singer, movie star, political leader, sports team, or law in your state? Your response will be either positive or negative, or maybe neutral if you’re not familiar with the object of the attitude. Where did that attitude come from? Attitude comes from experiences, peer groups, beliefs, rewards, and punishments.


Values are goals we strive for and what we consider important and desirable. We can engage in the same behavior but for different values; one person may participate in a river cleanup because they value the future of the planet; another may value the appearance of the community in which they live; another just because friends are involved, and they value relationships.


Needs are important deficiencies that we are motivated to fulfill. Your audience members are experiencing both “felt” and “real” needs. A “felt” need is a strong “want” that the person believes will fulfill or satisfy them even if the item isn’t necessary for survival. As great as WIFI and coffee are, they are not crucial to human survival, but we do want them so strongly that they operate as needs.

Who Are You to Your Audience?

While preparing for a speech, take a moment to reflect on who you are as a person, and who you are as a public speaker. Are you outgoing and confident, or are you more reserved? Do you naturally talk with your hands? Are you comfortable expressing emotions and vulnerability? Do you like incorporating humor? What are your strengths as a public speaker? What skills are you working to develop that require more conscious effort? You may want to play to your strengths, or you may intentionally wish to challenge yourself.

If you’re giving a speech on a particular topic, the assumption is that you have some level of familiarity with the topic of the speech. Are you particularly knowledgeable about the subject or do you have personal experience? Part of building a rapport with the audience is to establish your credibility. Why should they trust you or care what you have to say? Even if you’re not an expert in the subject matter it’s helpful to express your genuine interest in a topic and to position your level of knowledge. Additionally, it’s important to ground facts and arguments in relation to outside sources.

You’re not using the speech to dump a large amount of content on the audience; you’re making that content important, meaningful, and applicable to them. What are their needs and expectations? Additionally, the way the audience perceives you and your connection to them—such as whether there is mutual trust and respect—will determine your success with the audience. The speaker must respect the audience and the audience should trust the speaker.

Applying Audience Analysis

Now that you know the categories that comprise demographic and psychographic factors, and you see that it’s important to take stock of yourself in the speaking circumstances, you can use all these elements systematically to improve your speech. In the beginning of this chapter, we discussed Ethical Audience Analysis. With information gathered directly or from the organizer of the event, you can strive to make reasonable assumptions about your audience while avoiding unlikely assumptions, stereotyping, and totalizing.

Homogenous or Heterogeneous Audiences

Among the most important distinctions you can make in audience analysis is recognizing if an audience shares many key demographic and psychographic features, or if an audience contains a mixture of people with few demographic and psychographic features in common. We call this homogeneous versus heterogeneous audiences. The speech occasion usually dictates the makeup of the audience and whether they are heterogeneous or homogeneous. Due to our diverse society, many public speeches will have a heterogeneous audience. However, if you’re asked to speak to a particular group or at a specialized event, the audience may be more homogeneous.

Imagine speaking before a boy’s youth group at a Christian church event. This is a homogeneous group because of many shared demographic (age, gender, religion, group affiliation) and shared psychographic (beliefs, attitudes) factors. You could lean into this shared sense of identity to connect with audience members through examples and references that are tailored to their demographic. However, a group of first year college students at an orientation event is heterogeneous because of diversity in key demographics (gender, race, ethnicity, religion) and psychographics (beliefs, attitudes, needs). Even though first-year college students may share a similar age and identity at a particular university, those shared factors may be less salient than their diversity. Particularly with a heterogeneous group, you want to use inclusive language and not alienate audience members who have divergent backgrounds. Think about how your speech can engage people on multiple levels so that regardless of their background they are able to relate to your message.

Using Your Analysis

The conclusions you draw about the composition of your audience are only useful if you let these conclusions shape the way you write and deliver your speech. Here are some questions to guide you:

  • Knowing my audience, is my topic interesting and relevant? If the topic is chosen for me, how should I approach the assignment to make the topic interesting and relevant to this particular audience?
  • What level of vocabulary is appropriate for this audience? Should my speech be more accessible? More formal?
  • What is the right demeanor for presenting to this audience?
  • Given who I am as a speaker, how can I build rapport with this specific audience?
  • Are there terms or ideas that I need to carefully explain? Or will these be familiar to my audience?
  • How will I motivate this specific audience to listen to my speech?
  • Does my speech topic, content, or vocabulary make assumptions about homogeneity that are not true for my audience?


Identifying and analyzing the who, what, where, when, and why of given circumstances will help you to determine the how of preparing for the speaking occasion. Additionally, ethical audience analysis can be useful in determining particular themes, language, and research sources to either employ or avoid to best connect with the audience. Furthermore, you’ll be able to decide how you’ll deliver the speech (options for delivery will be covered in the next chapter). Below is a worksheet to aid in the process.

Something to Think About

Imagine you’re asked to give a five-minute informative speech that explains the idea of the “three branches” (executive, judiciary, and legislative) of governance that forms our American democracy. You couldn’t possibly know how to write this informative speech unless you knew who your audience was going to be. Consider how different your speech would be in these three imagined circumstances:

  1. You’re on a study abroad program in a foreign country, and students are giving class presentations about the government of their home country. Your audience is: non-American college students.
  2. You’re visiting a second-grade class for a job interview as a teacher, and they have asked you to explain this important idea to the students. Your audience is: second graders.
  3. You’re a student in law school, and in a moot court exercise, you must explain the three branches of government to the jury. Your audience is: adult American citizens.

Common sense would tell you that these different audiences require a different approach to the speech: different in the way you write it; and different in the way you deliver it. In everyday conversation and informal speaking, you instinctually adjust what you say and how you say it according to your audience. A public speaker needs to be more conscious and deliberate about these adjustments.

For instance, an audience that is mostly young kids or older adults will require you to intentionally speak slower and extra clearly. Unless speaking to a group with particular knowledge about a subject, avoid jargon and be mindful to define any unfamiliar terms or concepts. If you’re addressing an unfamiliar audience lean towards a more formal tone.


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Public Speaking as Performance Copyright © 2023 by Mechele Leon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.