Audience over speaker

Nov 12, 2023 | Public speaking

The first golden rule for successful public speaking is, according to top speechwriter Simon Lancaster, an ability to bear in mind that the audience is more important than the speaker. The real indication of the success of a speech is not how good the speaker feels as he or she walks off stage at the end, but what the audience has been inspired to gather round and talk about; what listeners will say when asked what they thought of the speech.

Will the audience be able to remember what the speech was about? Will they be able to give a pithy summary of what the key ideas were? If the answer is no, then the speech was simply not up to the mark.

US communications adviser, Frank Luntz, stresses ‘You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it though his or her own emotions, preconception, prejudices and pre-existing beliefs’.

A successful speech, therefore, is one where the audience and speaker appear to be aligned. Perhaps rather depressingly, people applaud what they consider to have been a great speech, if they basically agree with it. They applaud the fact that the speaker has been able to stand up on stage and reinforce, preferably with a certain amount of charisma, what they thought too! We do not convince people by saying how fabulous we are, but by saying how fabulous they are.

This might sound manipulative, when written here in black and white, but it is, in fact, just a reinforcement of the way in which we communicate naturally, when we are trying to influence outcome.

Noone would consider going for a job interview, for example, aiming to sell skills and experience that really have nothing to do with the job description. A more appropriate communication style would be to show understanding of the job in question (or the needs of the audience), making connections with past experience and skills that indicate rightness for the position. In the same way, good speeches are connected to the needs and concerns of the audience; otherwise they might as well be given in an empty chamber.

If an understanding of the needs of the audience enables a speech to land successfully, it is the use of emotion that drive the ideas into the hearts and minds of the listeners with impact. That, however, is the subject of a next article…