Know Thy Audience

Quote: “A person with a sense of humor doesn’t make jokes out of life, they merely recognize the ones that are already there.”

The ideal situation when presenting any kind of lecture is to make your audience feel that you are one of them—just with a bit more information. You want the audience to feel comfortable, not intimidated by your knowledge. You want them to open up to you as a friend, not as some conceited “know it all” stuffed shirt. In short, you are not the enemy.

When spicing up your speech with humor, it is essential to know your audience. Before taking the speaking engagement, there are some key factors and demographics that you should get a hold of that will help you outline your speech and gear it in the right direction. Doing your homework ahead of time will have great rewards when speech day comes.

The first thing you want to start with are the basics; get the name and what type of group it is. For example, are they blue collar, white collar, students, religious or political?

Next you want to find out the educational makeup of the group. Are they high school graduates, vocational, college graduates and at what level?

It will make a difference if you are talking to people with BA’s, MA’s or doctorates on your subject. Based on their knowledge, you can get a guideline of where to start your speech on a particular topic. This is especially important if you are coming in as an expert on a topic they are familiar with.

You should also find out the age range and sex of the group. Let’s not get kinky now. Are they all male, female, mixed, homosexual? Also it’s good to know the political slant of the group. Are they conservative or liberal?

For the humor aspect of your speech, it’s important to get before hand the names of a couple of the local places — like the diner, highway, airports, or the name of someone who is either really loved or hated in those circles. This person will be a particularly good target for humor. Plus, naming someone or a place on the inside usually gets a round of applause.

If you are performing for a particular company like IBM, or group like the girl scouts, get the company jargon, technical terms or lingo. Slipping in a few key insider phrases makes you really look as if you are in with the group. Make sure, of course, you are pronouncing the names of the people or technical terms correctly. The last thing you want to say is that product 1483 L-right is great, and they have no idea what you are talking about. Save the laughter for the jokes, not faux pas.

Find out how long you are speaking for. There’s a big difference between 15 and 50 minutes. Try to find out if there are any other speakers on the program and what their topics are about. If the topics are similar, make sure you use jokes that weren’t in yesterday’s paper. The last thing you want is somebody going before you and using your opening joke! Talk about panic city!

And the last bit of information you need to gather, outside of how much you are getting paid, is what are the circumstances for the speech? Is it a dinner, a training session, a monthly meeting, a celebration, or an award ceremony? Your speech can be flavored with more or less jokes according to the circumstances. Of course, if it’s a roast….no holds barred.

Armed with this plethora of information, gear your jokes to the occasion. You would not do the same presentation in front of a group of nuns as you would at a Hell’s Angels rally. How many of you have spoken in front of either or both of these groups? I have. I told you I was diversified.

The main thing is to be prepared and get group-appropriate jokes.

There’s this one comic I know who did not check out his audience. One of his jokes was, “Want to have fun?” Yell out last call at an AA meeting.” Turns out a large number of the audience were recovering alcoholics. They were not amused. He was never asked back.

It is essential to know your audience in humor. If you speak over their level, they will tune you out simply because they don’t get the jokes. If you underestimate their intelligence, they feel you are being condescending.

If you know thy audience well in advance, it will give you plenty of time to prepare, practice and gather jokes that are audience-appropriate for the speech and for you to shine in the best light possible.

As always, be yourself and have a good time.