Adapting to the Audience’s Level of Understanding

Adapting to the Audience’s Level of Understanding

If you predict ., that your listeners do not have the necessary background to understand the information you will present in your speech, you will need to orient them. If, however, you predict that your audience has sufficient back ground, you will need to present the information in a way that will ensure con ‘ruinous understanding.

Orienting Listeners

Because your listeners are likely to stop paying attention if they are lost at the start of your speech, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of expecting little knowledge rather than expecting too much. So, if there is any reason to believe some people may not have necessary background knowledge, take time to review basic facts. For instance, for a speech about changes in political and economic conditions in Eastern Europe, you can be reasonably sure that everyone in your audience is aware of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. However, they may not remember all of the specific countries that have been created. Befor~ launching into changing conditions, remind your listeners of the names of the nations that you are going to be talking about. Because some of your listeners may be well oriented, a good way to present that information without insulting their intelligence is to give the impression that you are reviewing information the audience remembers. By saying “As you will remember,” “As we have come to find out,” “As we all learned in our high school courses,” your orientation will be accepted as review statements and not put-downs. For instance, for the speech on changes in political and economic  conditions in Eastern Europe, you might say, As you will recall, the former Soviet Union now consists of the following separate states.” If listeners already know the information, they will see your statements as reminders. If they do not know it, they are getting the information in a way that does not call attention to their information gaps-they can act as if they do in fact remember. How much orientation you give depends on how much time is available. When you do not have enough time to give a complete background, determine where a lack of information will impinge on your ability to get through to your audience and fill in the crucial information that closes those gaps.

Presenting New Information

Even when we predict that our audience has the necessary background information, we still need to work on ways of presenting new information that ensures continued understanding. Speakers can use devices such as defining, describing, exemplifying, and comparing to help clarify information that may be confusing

or difficult for some audience members. A speaker must keep in mind that an audience is made up of individuals, and thus an effective speaker anticipates the different comprehension styles of those individuals. As you plan your speech, ask the following questions

1. Have you defined all key terms carefully? For instance, if your speech goal is, “I want my audience to understand four major problems faced by those who are functionally illiterate,” in the opening of your speech you might present this definition

By “functionally illiterate,” I mean people who have trouble accomplishing transactions entailing reading and writing in which an individual wishes to engage.

2. Have you supported every generalization with at least one specific example? For instance, suppose that you made the statement

Large numbers of Americans who are functionally illiterate cannot read well enough to understand simple directions.

You could then use the example,

For instance, a person who is functionally illiterate might not be able to read or understand a label that says “take three times a day after eating.”

3. Have you compared or contrasted new information to information your audience already understands? For instance, if you wanted the audience to sense what it feels like to be functionally illiterate, you might compare the problems of functional illiterates to problems many have experienced, such as dealing with a foreign language

Many of us have taken a foreign language in school. But as we enter a “foreign” territory, we often discover that even road signs are a little difficult to comprehend when we’re under even a little pressure. For instance, when I was fortunate enough to get to Montreal last summer, I saw a sign that said that what I was looking for was” a adroit.” I thought I could handle simple directions, yet for just a minute I was puzzle,g whether “a adroit” was “to the right” or “to the left.” Just imagine what it must be like if for so many “simple” ideas or directions you to puzzle for a while and run the risk that you were making a major mistake.

In short, at any point in a speech where there appears to be’ any difficulty in understanding an idea or a concept, be prepared to define, exemplify, and compare or contrast.

4. Have you used more than one means of development for significant points you want the audience to remember? This final bit of advice is based on a sound psychological principle: The more different kinds of explanations a speaker gives, the more listeners will understand. Let’s go back to a significant statement we made earlier

Large numbers of Americans who are functionally illiterate cannot read we” enough to understand simple directions.

To this statement we added an example

For instance, a person who is functionally illiterate might not be able to read or understand a label that says “take three times a day after eating.”

The example makes the statement more meaningful. Now let’s see how we can build that statement even further

A significant number of Americans are functionally illiterate. That is, large numbers of Americans, about 20 percent of the adult population, or around 35 million people, have serious difficulties with common reading tasks. They cannot read well enough to understand simple cooking instructions, directions on how to work an appliance, or rules on how to plaza game. For instance, a person who is functionally illiterate might not be able to read or understand a label that says “take three times a day after eating.

The first statement, “A significant number of Americans are functionally illiterate,” consists of eight words that are likely to be uttered in slightly less than five seconds! A listener who coughs, drops her pencil, or happens to remember an appointment she has during those five seconds will miss the entire sentence. The first example adds twenty-five words. Now it is likely that more people will get the point. The expanded example contains eighty five words, Now, even in the face of some distractions, it is likely that most listeners will have heard and registered the information. In short speeches you cannot fully develop every bit of information. You can, however, identify two or three of your highest priority bits of information and build them fully using two or three different kinds of development .

Building a Positive Attitude toward You  as the Speaker

If you predict that the audience will have a ‘positive attitude toward you as a speaker, then you need only try to maintain that attitude. If, however, you predict that the audience has no opinion or for some reason has a negative attitude toward you, then you will want to build your credibility, the level of trust an audience has or will have in you. There are several ways to do this.

Building Audience Perception of Your Knowledge and Expertise

The first step in building a perception of knowledge and expertise is to go into the speaking situation fully prepared. Audiences have an almost instinctive knowledge of when a speaker is “winging it,” and most audiences lose respect for a speaker who has not thought enough of them or the situation to have a well-prepared message.

The next step is to show your audience that you have a wealth of high quality examples, illustrations, and personal experiences. Recall how much more favorably you perceive your professors who have an inexhaustible supply of supporting information as opposed to those professors who present, and seem to have, only the barest minimum of facts. The third step is to show any direct involvement you have had with the topic area. In addition to increasing the audience’s perception of your depth of knowledge, your personal involvement increases the audience’s perception of your practical and~standing of the issues and your personal concern for the subject. For example, if you are speaking on toxic waste, your credibility will increase manifold by sharing with the audience your personal experiences in petitioning for local environmental controls.

Building Audience Perception of Your Trustworthiness

The more your listeners see you as one of them, the easier it will be for you to establish your trustworthiness, your character, and your apparent motives for speaking. The more your listeners see you as different, the more difficult it will be. Part of building credibility depends on your ability to bridge gaps between you and members of your audience. First, listeners will make value judgments of your character based on their assessment of your moral and ethical traits. As you plan your speech, ask yourself what you can do in the speech to demonstrate that you are honest, industrious, dependable, and a morally strong person

In addition, listeners will consider your apparent motives. Early in your speech, it is important to show why listeners need to know your information. Then, throughout the speech, you can emphasize your sincere interest in their well-being. For a speech on toxic waste, for example, you could explain how a local Dumpster adversely affects the community..

Building Audience Perception of Your Personality

Audience perceptions of your personality are likely to be based on their first . impressions of you. Try to dress appropriately, groom yourself carefully, and carry yourself attractive manner. The old compliment “He/she cleans up real good” is one to remember. In addition, audiences react favorably to a speaker who acts friendly. A smile and a pleasant tone of voice go a long way in showing a warmth that will increase listeners’ comfort with you and your ideas. We will discuss three additional features of personality (enthusiasm, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness) in on speech presentation.

Adapting to the Audience’s Attitude toward Your Speech Goal

Adapting to listeners’ attitudes toward your speech goal is especially important for persuasive speeches, but it can be important for informative speeches as well. An audience attitude is a predisposition for or against people, places, or things that is usually expressed as an opinion. At the outset, try to predict whether listeners will view your topic positively, negatively, or have no opinion. If, for instance, you think your listeners would view the topic of refinishing furniture positively or neutrally, then you can move forward with your speech. If, however, you think your listeners really view refinishing furniture as too hard or unimportant, then you will need to take time early in the speech to change their opinion. In Chapter 18 on persuasive speaking, we will consider strategies for dealing with listeners’ attitudes in more detail.

Special Problems of Speakers from Different Cultures

This chapter has been written with the assumption that you have been raised in the United States. But even in the United States you may have to adapt to cultural differences of your listeners. For instance, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, and African Americans raised in the United States may maintain a strong sense of their Mexican, Japanese, or African heritage and as a result may see things differently from each other. In the Diverse Voices box, Shirley Weber’s experience gives you a sense of one of the kinds of differences that you may have to adapt to.

In addition, the chances of students in this course coming from foreign cultures has increased dramatically. Suppose, for a minute, that you are a person who has recently immigrated to the United States or has moved here for your higher education. Being less familiar with the general United States culture, you may have a more difficult time adapting to your classroom audiences than do other students in the class.

Two of the problems with adaptation for people from foreign backgrounds are difficulty with the English language and lack of a common set of experiences to draw from. Difficulty with the language includes both difficulty with pronunciation and difficulty with vocabulary and idiomatic speech. Both of these could make you feel self-conscious. But the lack of a common set of experiences to draw from may be even more significant. So much of our information is gained through comparison and examples that the lack of common experiences may make drawing comparisons and using appropriate examples much more difficult

What can you do to help you through the public-speaking experience? Difficulty with pronunciation might require you to speak more slowly and to articulate as clearly as possible. Also, make sure that you are comfortable with your topic. You might want to consider talking about aspects of your homeland. Because you would be providing new information, your classmates would likely look forward to hearing you speak. It would be useful for you to practice at least once with a person raised in the United States. Ask that person to help you make sure you are using language and examples and comparisons that the audience will be able to relate to.

Most U.S. students are much more tolerant of mistakes made by people who are speaking in what is for them their second or even third language than

they are of mistakes made by their fellow American-born students. This will work in your favor. Also, keep in mind that the more practice you get speaking to people from this culture, the more comfortable you will become with the language and with your ability to relate to the people you meet here.

Adapting to Audiences Visually

At this point in preparation, you are ready to consider how to adapt to audiences through visual AIDSes form of speech development that enables the audience to see as well as to hear information. Visual aids help to clarify and dramatize verbal information, and using them will payoff for you. How? First, people are likely to learn considerably more when ideas appeal to both eye and ear than when they appeal to the ear alone (Skydiver, 1997, p. 258). Second, people are likely to remember information shown on visual aids even over long periods (Patterson, Danseuse, & Newborn, 1992, pp. 453-461). Let’s consider visual aids you can carry and visual aids you can make. Then we will consider media for visual aids, designing them, and making choices

Visual Aids You Can Carry

Many times your speech can be helped-by using a visual aid you can carry to class.

Yourself On occasion, you can be your own best visual aid. For instance, through descriptive gestures you can show the height of a tennis net; through your posture and movement you can show the motions involved in the butterfly swimming stroke; and through your own attire you can illustrate the native dress of a foreign country.

Objects A cell phone, a-basketball, or a braided rug are the kinds of objects you can bring to class that can be seen by the audience. Objects make good visual aids if (1) they are large enough to be seen (consider how far away people will be sitting) anti (2) small enough to carry around with you. For instance, Erin .used a volleyball throughout much of her speech to show the audience how to spike.

Models When an object is too large to bring to the speech site or too small to be seen, a three-dimensional model may prove a worthwhile substitute. If you were to talk about a turbine engine, a suspension bridge, an Egyptian pyramid, or the structure of an atom, a model might well be the best visual aid. Working models can be especially eye-catching

Photographs Photos are useful visual aids when you need an exact reproduction. To be effective, they need to be large enough to be seen from the back of the room and simple enough to make ‘your point at a glance.

Films Although films can be brought to class, they are seldom appropriate for speeches-mostly because films so dominate that the speaker loses control. Occasionally during a longer speech you may want to use short clips of a minute or two each. Still, because projecting film requires darkening the room for that portion of time, using film in a speech is often disruptive. Moreover, to use films you must bring a projector to class with you.

Slides The advantage of slides over film i~ that you can control when each image will be shown. The remote-control device enables you to pace your slides and to talk about each one as long as necessary. As with films, slides require darkening the room while they are projected.and novice speakers may lose control of their audience. And as with films, you must bring a projector to class with you.

Visual Aids You Can Create
The next group of visual aids require more work for you because you have to create them.

Drawings Simple drawings are easy to prepare. If you can use a compass, a straightedge, and a measure, you can draw well enough for most speech purposes. For instance, if you are making the point that water skiers must hold their arms straight, with the back straight and knees bent slightly, a stick figure

such as the one in will illustrate the point. Stick figures may not be as aesthetically pleasing as professional drawings, but they work just as well. In fact, elaborate, derailed drawings are not worth the time and effort and actually may obscure the point you wish to make.

Maps Like drawings, maps are relatively easy to prepare. Simple maps enable you to focus on landmarks (mountains, rivers, and lakes), states, cities, land routes, or weather systems. Figure 15.2 is a good example of a map that focuses on weather systems

Charts A chart is a graphic representation that distills a lot of information and presents it to an audience in an easily interpreted format. Word charts and organizational charts are the most common. Word charts are often used to preview material that will be covered in a
speech, to summarize material, and ~o remind an audience of speech content. For his speech on credit cards, Preminger might make a word chart that lists key

Media for Showing Visual Aids

You can use several media to show your visual aids.

Handouts On the plus side, you can prepare handouts (material printed or drawn on sheets of paper) quickly, and all the people in the audience can have their own professional-quality material to refer to and take with them from the speech. On the minus side is the distraction of distributing handouts and the potential for losing the audience’s attention when you want it to be on you. Before you decide on handouts, consider each of the following means of showing visual aids. If you do decide on handouts, it is a good idea to distribute them at the end of the speech

Chalkboard As a means of displaying simple information, the chalkboard, a staple in every college classroom, is unbeatable. Unfortunately, the chalkboard is also easy to misuse and to overuse. Moreover, it is unlikely that the chalkboard would be your first choice for any major analysis of a process or procedure because of its limitations in displaying complex material. Nevertheless, effective use ‘of the chalkboard should be a part of any professional speaker’s repertoire.

One common error in using the chalkboard is to write too much material while you are talking, an error that often results in displays that are either illegible or parody obscured by your body as you write. A second common error is to spend too much time talking to the board instead of to the audience. The chalkboard is best used for short items. of information that can be written in a few seconds. If you plan to draw or write while talking, practice doing it. If you are right-handed, stand to the right of what you are drawing. Try to face at least part of the audience while you work. Although it may seem awkward at first, your effort will enable you to maintain contact with your audience and will enable the audience to see what you are doing while you are doing it.

Overhead transparencies Perhaps the easiest and most common way to display visual aids is to project them onto a screen via an overhead projector. Overheads can be made by hand (traced or hand-lettered), by machine (copy machine, tomographic, color lift), or by computer. A major advantage of overheads is that you can make them rather easily and inexpensively if you have access to a computer, a copy machine, and overhead (acetate) sheets. If you own a computer, you are likely to have the software (Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Page Maker) that you need. If you do not own a computer, your college computer lab is likely to have the necessary equipment and software to

help you, Once you have made the visual aid, and if you have access to an inkjet or laser printer, you can print it on acetate sheets and display it via the overhead projector. If you have access to a dot matrix printer, you will have to print it on regular paper and take it to a copy service to be converted to a transparency.

Overheads work well in nearly any setting, and unlike other kinds of projections, they do nor require dimming the lights in the room. Moreover, overheads can be use for showing how formulas work, for illustrating various computations, or for analyzing data because it is possible to write, trace, or draw on the transparency while you are talking. This is best left to experienced presenters, however. In the beginning, stick to overheads that are complete, so you can concentrate’ on your speech-and not on adding data during your speech.

Computer-mediated visual aids Today, in professional presentations, many of the graphics that are used are rendered by computer. Whereas overheads require only an overhead projector (standard in many college classrooms), computer-mediated visual aids require much more complicated equipment. Still, those who are “with it” are adept at creating computer graphics. Moreover, the availability of software designed especially for producing “presentation graphics” is rapidly changing how many speakers prepare their visual materials. With the right equipment, graphics can !be displayed directly onto a screen or TV monitor as a computer “slide show,” printed out and enlarged, photographed to make slides, or used to create overhead transparencies or handouts. Except for complex multimedia presentations, computer graphics arc not so much a new type of visual aid as a new way of producing visual aids. They do have the ability to add a very polished look to your speech, and because computer graphics presentations are becoming commonplace in many business environments, it is important to be familiar with this method. Computers are so easily accessible today and so advanced in capabilities that any professional speaker should experiment with one of the many computer graphics systems (such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Persuasion, or Lotus Freelance) to prepare visual material for speeches.

Today, many colleges and universities have dedicated classrooms that house or are user-ready for advanced electronic equipment. If your school is one of these, then you are likely to be able to sign up for workshops where you can learn how to use this equipment. If you have not tried a presentation graphics package or if you are unsure of which one to try and what its capabilities might be, investigate computer magazines for reviews of graphics software. With a few keystrokes or with the click of a “mouse,” you can change lines of facts and figures into a variety of graphic displays using these kinds of software. Additionally, access to the Internet enables you to download and store your own “library” of images. Depending on the presentation graphics software you have, you can insert virtually any image from your library into your presentation.

If you have access to a scanner, you can also transfer a photograph from a book or magazine directly to your computer library. Preparing good presentations using computer graphics does take time and practice, however. It is best to start simple, importing images only as you become more comfortable with the software capabilities.

Designing Drawings, Overheads, and Computer Projections

The visual aids that people are most likely to use in their presentations are drawings, overheads, or computer projections. Let’s examine a few of the principles that you will want to consider to maximize their value.

1. Use printing or a type size that can be seen easily by your entire audience. Whether you are planning to use a drawing or an overhead, check your lettering for size by moving as far away from the visual aid you have created as the farthest person in your audience will be sitting. If you can read the lettering and see the details from that distance, then both are large enough. If not, draw another sample and check it for size. Because projection will increase the size of your lettering, try 36 points for major headings, 24 points for subheadings, and 18 points for text. Figure 15.8 illustrates how these look on paper. Type printed at a size of 36 points will  project to two-and-a-half to three inches on the screen, 24-point type will project. to one to two inches, and 18-point type will project to one-half to one inch.

2. Use a typeface that is pleasing to the eye. Modern software packages (like Microsoft Word) come with a variety of typefaces. shows Helvetian and Times, two standard typefaces in regular and boldface 18 point size. If neither of these is pleasing to you, you are likely to

have other choices to draw from. Be sure the typeface you choose is easy to read. Many typefaces that look especially pretty or dramatic are difficult to read.

3. Use upper- and .lowercase type. The combination of upper- and lowercase is easier to read. Some people think that printing in all capital letters emphasizes. This may be true in some instances, but ideas printed in all capital letters are more difficult to read=even when the ideas are written in short phrases.

4. Try to limit the lines of type to no more than six phrases. You don’t want the audience to have to spend a long time reading your visual aid-you want them to listen to you. Limit the number of lines to six or fewer and write points ;lS phrases rather than complete sentences.

5. Focus on information that you will emphasize in the speech. We often get ideas for visual aids from other sources, and the tendency is to include all the material that was in the original. But for speech purposes, keep the aid as simple a.s possible. Focus on the key information and eliminate anything . that distracts or takes emphasis away from the point you want to make. Because the tendency to clutter is likely to present a special problem on graphs, let’s consider two graphs that enrollment by age of students (Figure 15.10). The graph on the left shows all eleven categories mentioned; the graph on the right simplifies this information by combining age ranges with small percentages. The graph on the right is not only easier to read but also emphasizes the highest percentage classifications.

6. Make sure information is laid out in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. Layout involves ensuring white space around the whole message, indenting subordinate ideas, and using different sized type as well a different treatments, such as balding and underlining.

7. Add clip art where appropriate. If you are working with computer graphics, you may consider adding clip art. Most computer graphics packages have a

Making Choices

1. What arc the most important ideas in helping me achieve my speech goal?
Visual aids~nd the material on them are likely to be remembered. Try to
use them only with the most important ideas of the speech.

2. How large is the audience? The kind of visual aids that will work for a group of twenty or less is far different from the kind that will work for an audience of one hundred or more. For instance, for an audience of twenty or less, like most of your classroom speeches, you can choose to show relatively small objects and small models-everyone will be able to see them. For very large audiences, you will need projections that can be seen from one hundred to two hundred feet away with ease.

3. Is necessary equipment readily available? There will be times when you will be speaking in an environment that is not equipped for electronic display .. At the University

chalkboard, an overhead projector, and electrical outlets. If you want to use most anything else, you have to bring it yourself or schedule through a university office if the item is available. Be prepared! In any situation in which you have scheduled equipment from an outside source, prepare yourself for  the possibility that the equipment may not arrive on time or that the equipment  will not work the way you thought it would. Call ahead, get to your speaking location early, and have an alternative visual aid to use, just in case.

5. ‘How many visual aids should Consider? Unless you are doing a slide show in which the total focus of the speech is on visual images, the number of visual aids to use is likely to be relatively few. For the most part, you want the focus of the audience on you, the speaker, Use visual aids when their use will hold attention, exemplify an idea, or help the audience remember. With each of these goals, the more visual aids used, the less value will occur, For a five-minute speech, three visual aids used at crucial times will get attention, exemplify, and stimulate recall far better than using six or eight throughout ·Your speech,

A Plan of Adaptation

Now that we have. considered how to adapt speech information to a given audiometer  e verbally and visually, it is time to focus on writing a speech plan, a written strategy for establishing common ground, maintaining interest, ensuring understanding, and coping with potential negative reactions to you as a speaker or to your topic or goal. Even though your classroom audience may be similar to you in age, race, religion, academic background, and so forth, you must still think through your strategy carefully,

Formulating a plan begins with looking over the Audience Analysis Checklist you prepared for your speech in Chapter 12 (page 295), with special emphasis on the predictions you made. Using this information, write a draft of your speech plan by answering these questions.

1. What will I do to establish and maintain common ground? Begin by considering how you might use personal pronouns and rhetorical questions, common experiences, hypothetical situations, and personalized information to maintain common ground

2. What will I do to build and maintain interest? Write down what you will do to show timeliness, proximity, and seriousness of impact. Also indicate what attention-getting techniques you plan to use during the speech to rebuild or heighten interest. Indicate where you can use visual aids to gain or heighten interest.

3. How will you ensure that the audience has enough background information? Show what you will do to orient your listeners if they have insufficient background understand your speech.

4. What will you do to build and maintain your credibility? Write how you will attempt to show your knowledge or experts trustworthiness, and appealing personality.

5. What will you do to build and maintain a positive attitude toward your topic? Write about how you will show the importance of understanding the information you will present. If your speech topic is controversial, show why the audience needs to listen even if they oppose your beliefs.

For practice, let us look at how Lemming might proceed. Recall that Lemming is speaking to inform his class about the criteria for evaluating credit cards. The complete outline for his speech is contained in (pages 356-357). Figure 15.13 is Lemming’s audience analysis.


Speakers adapt to their audiences by speaking directly to them and by planning strategies that create or build audience interest, adapt to audience levels of understanding, and adapt to the audience’s attitude toward the speaker and toward the speech goal.

Direct audience adaptation includes using personal pronouns, rhetorical questions, common experiences, and personalizing information.
Strategies for maintaining or increasing interest include stressing the timeliness of the information, the impact on the audience’s personal space, and the .seriousness of the personal impact. Strategies for adapting to the audience’s misunderstanding of the information depend on the audience’s existing knowledge revel. If the audience lacks specific topic knowledge, then fill in necessary background information. Strategies for building your credibility include going into the speech fully prepared and showing a sincere interest in the audience’s well being. To adapt to audience attitudes toward the speech goal, focus on showing why the audience needs to know about the topic. Visual aids include the speaker, objects, charts, pictorial representations, projections, chalkboard, handouts, and computer graphics. Visual aids have the greatest impact if they are used in ways that best reinforce the points of the speech. Take tine to design visual aids that are large enough and that are pleasing to the eye. Focus on items’of information that you will emphasize in the speech. For your first few speeches, it may help to write out a speech plan that specifies how you will adapt your speech to the specific audience.

Adapting Verbally and Visually

Adapting Verbally and Visually

Jeremy had forgotten something that has been recognized as long as speeches have been given: that a speech is intended for a specific audience. Audience adaptation is the active process of verbally and visually relating material directly to the specific audience. You will recall that an effective speech plan is a product of five action steps. In this chapter, we consider the fourth step: Develop a strategy for adapting material to your specific speech audience. This involves (1) developing common ground, (2) building and maintaining audience interest, (3) relating to the audience’s level of understanding, (4) reinforcing or changing audience attitudes toward you or your topic, and (5) relating information visually. In Chapter 16, we continue to emphasize these means of adapting through speech presentation.

Developing Common Ground

The first and in many ways the most important way speakers show awareness of their audience’s presence is to use specific means of developing common ground, the awareness that the speaker and the audience share the same or similar information, feelings, and experiences.

Use Personal Pronouns

One way of developing common ground is to use personal pronouns, pronouns referring directly to the one speaking, spoken to, or spoken about. Merely by

using the terms “you,” “US,” “we,” and” our,” you give listeners verbal signs that you are talking with them. In his speech on effects of television violence, instead of saying, “When people think about violence on TV, they often wonder how it affects viewers,” Jeremy could say, “When you think about violence on TV, you may wonder how it affects viewers.” The use of just these two personal pronouns in the sentence may not seem like much, but it can mean the difference between audience attention and audience inference to you and your speech.

Ask Rhetorical Questions

A second ‘way of developing common ground is to ask rhetorical questions, questions phrased to stimulate a mental response rather than an actual spoken response on the part of the audience. For instance, in the television violence example, making one more change in the sample sentence would increase the sense of audience participation in the speech

When you watch a particularly violent TV program, have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder whether watching such violent programs has any negative effects on viewers?”

Rhetorical questions generate audience participation; once the audience participates, it becomes more involved in the content. Rhetorical questions must be sincere to be effective, so practice them until you can ask these questions naturally and sincerely.

Share Common Experiences

A third way of developing common ground is to share common experiences by selecting and presenting personal experiences, examples, and illustrations that show what you and the audience have in common. For instance, in his speech about effects of television violence, Jeremy might say something like, “Remember how sometimes at a eyeopener when you’re watching a really scary movie you may close your eyes.” In this case, Jeremy calls on the audience to provide their own personal moment of fear. That can be just as powerful as if he had taken the time to present the details of one particular incident.

Personalize Information

A fourth way of creating common ground is to personalize information by relating to specific audience references. Suppose you are giving a speech in California on the effects of the Japanese economy on U.S. markets, and you want to help listeners understand geographic data about Japan. You could cite the following statistics from the 2001 World Almanac

Japan is small and densely populated. The nation’s 126 million people live in a land area of 146,000 square miles that gives them a population density of 867 persons per square mile. (p. 803)

Although this passage relates the information, it is not at all related to the specific audience. You could state the same information in a way that would be both more interesting and more meaningful to your California audience

Japan is a small, densely populated nation, Her population is 126 million-only about half that of the United States. Yet the Japanese are crowded into a land area of only 146,000 square miles–roughly the same size as the state of California. Just think of the implications of having one-half the population of the _ United States living in California, where 30 million now live. In addition, Japan packs 867 persons into every square mile of land, whereas in the United States we average about 74 persons per square mile, Japan, then, is about 12 times as crowded as the United States.

This revision includes an invented comparison of the unknown, Japan, with the familiar, the United States and home state of California. Even though most Americans do not have the total land area of the United States on the tip of the tongue, they know that the United States covers a great deal of territory. Likewise, a California audience would have a mental picture of the size of their home state compared to the rest of the nation. If you were speaking to an audience from another part of the country, you could make your comparison to a different state, such as Texas, New York, or Florida. Such detailed comparisons enable the audience to visualize just how small and crowded Japan is. Reworking information so that it creates common ground will take time, but the effort pays big dividends. Your listeners are always going to be asking, “What does this’ have to do with me?” Unless the way you present your information answers that question, your speeches are not going to be as effective as they should be. Examples, stories, illustrations, and quotations that relate to your audience answer that question. Joan Gotham, the subject of the Spotlight on Scholars, has conducted many re,search projects that show the effect of adaptation, or what she calls “immediacy,” on building attention and ensuring audience retention of information.

Creating and Maintaining Audience Interest

Listeners’ interest depends on whether they believe the information has personal impact: “What does this have to do with me?” Let’s consider four principles you can use to build and morning audience interest timeliness, proximity, . seriousness, and vividness.

Listeners are more likely to be interested in information they perceive as timely they want to know how they can use the information now. Suppose for

your speech on “The criteria for evaluating the quality of dividends,” you determine that the topic is not likely to kindle much immediate audience interest. Here is an introduction that may help motivate your audience to see knowledge of diamonds as timely

In thinking about a gift for your spouse or significant other to celebrate a special occasion, you may have though briefly about purchasing a diamond ring, earrings, or necklace. But, if you lifelike me, you. might be shying away from that thought because you really don’t know much about diamonds and you think you couldn’t afford it. Well, today I’d like to help you out some by talking about criteria for evaluating the quality of diamonds 

Listeners are more likely to be interested in information that has proximity, a relationship to their personal space. Psychologically we pay more attention to information that affects our “territory” than to information that we perceive as remote. You have probably heard speakers say something like this: “Let me bring this closer to home by showing you … ,” Statements like this work because information becomes important to people when they perceive it as affecting “their own backyard.” If, for instance, you are giving a report on

the difficulties the EPA is having with its environmental cleanup campaigns, you would want to focus on examples in the audience’s community. If you do not have that kind of information, take time to find it. For instance, for the EPA topic, a well-placed telephone call to the local or regional EPA office, or even to your local newspaper, will get the information you need to make the connection.


Listeners are more likely to be interested in information that is serious, that has a physical, economic, or psychological impact on them. To build or maintain interest during a speech on toxic waste, you could show serious physical impact by saying “Toxic waste affects the health of all of us”; you could show serious economic impact by saying “Toxic waste cleanup and disposal are expensive they raise our Artaxerxes, or you could show serious psychological impact by saying “Toxic waste Mercedes quality of our life and the lives of our children.” Think of how your classroom attention picks up tremendously when the professor reveals that a particular piece of information is going to “be on the test.” The potential serious economic impact (not paying attention can cost you a lowered grade) is often enough to jolt you into attention. Most of us just don’t put our attention into high gear unless we see the seriousness of information.


Listeners are more likely to be. interested in anecdotes, examples, and other information that are vivid-that arouse our senses. For instance, in the middle of a speech on toxic waste, you may see attention flagging as you present technical information. Instead of waiting until you have lost the audience, you might choose this time to say, “Let me share with you a story that illustrates the gravity of toxic waste.

Just because you have a great number of attention-getting stories, examples, and illustrations does not mean that you have to use all of them. The effective speaker is sensitive to audience reaction at all times. When the audience is really with you, there is no need to break the rhythm. But when you sense the audience is not following your ideas, that is the time to lighten up with material that will pique attention. Keep in mind, however, that such information must pertain directly to the point you are making or it will be counterproductive.

Also remember that there is almost no way to keep audience members on the edge of their seats throughout the entire speech. Some sections of a speech may demand more from an audience. Any speech, regardless of quality, has highs and lows. The difference between an excellent speech and a mediocre one is that the highs are much higher and the lows are at the level of the mediocre speech’s highs