“How many years did you teach public speaking?” Paddy asked.
“Forty-six,” I told him. “Why?”
“Well, you know I go to these lectures at my church each month?” he said in his habit of combining a statement and a question.
I nodded my assent.
“Well,” Paddy went on, “this month there was a panel on public speaking and two of the panelists got into an argument about what’s the first thing you should do when preparing a speech. One said it was deciding on its length, and the other said it was deciding what visual aids to use. Who was right?”
“If they meant as a general rule, neither of them was right,” I said, letting Paddy hang, which I love doing.
“Okay,” he acknowledged when he realized I was waiting for him to say something, “then what in heck is the first thing you should do?”
“Unless it’s an audience with which you’re already familiar, the first preparatory thing to do is to find out as much as you can about them,” I told him.
“Really?” Paddy practically barked, clearly surprised at my answer.
“Absolutely,” I assured him, “because everything else - - topic, length, visual aids, and whatever - - depends on the make-up of the audience and what their expectations are. It’s always all about the audience.”
“I need more of an explanation,” Paddy urged, “what do you need to know other than whether they’re going to show up?”
“In addition to their expectations,” I explained, “you need to know the answers to questions such as: What does the audience expect from me? What do I have in common with them? What problems might they have for which I have solutions? What can they learn from my particular experiences and knowledge? Is there any particular action they should be taking? And most important of all, how much do they already know about the topic?”
“I wouldn’t have thought about any of those things,” Paddy admitted as I paused to take a sip of coffee before continuing.
“You should also think about whether you may have to clear up any misconceptions the audience might have about the topic. This is particularly true if you’re dealing with a new concept or trying to get people to change their minds about something.”
After a few seconds of silence I added, “Don’t be too quick to dismiss any idea that comes into your mind. What’s old hat to you may be a revelation to them; anything that comes to mind may be meaningful.”
“You clearly feel strongly about this,” Paddy observed, “but, why?”
“Because,” I said, “no matter how you may feel about your topic, you have to make it meaningful to the people sitting there listening to you. As I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, the audience will have formed some sort of expectation about what they’re going to hear, and you need to find out before you prepare your talk what that expectation is. They might be in the mood for one type of message but not for another.”
“How do you find out these things?” Paddy reasonably asked.
“The organizers of the event are usually the best source of information about the audience,” I told him. “And these days you can find out an awful lot about organizations and groups on the internet.”
I continued, “Remember, it’s all about the audience. If it’s a talk to inform, the audience has to leave knowing more about the topic than they did when they arrived. If it’s a talk to persuade, you have to appeal to their motives, which may be different than yours. If it’s a talk, to get action, they have to be inspired to act. If it’s a talk to entertain, they have to be entertained.”
“Is there more?” Paddy plaintively asked, clearly hoping that there wasn’t.
“Yes,” I disappointed him, “and it’s very important. If it’s a talk that you’ve given before, you have to remember that your original approach may not suit this audience. Your content should vary depending on the formality and mood of the event and the answers you obtained to the questions I mentioned.”
“Did you watch the Jays last night?” Paddy asked, this time leaving no doubt that the public speaking lecture was over.
“I did,” I answered, making the change of subject official.