by Alysia Bartley

Involve Your Audience Like a Rock Star – The Importance of Knowing Your Audience When Speaking and Writing ESL

Photographers are taking a picture of a film star

You have to be aware of who you’re talking to in an audience. – Louis Szekely, American comedian, screenwriter and producer

As an ESL student, have you given much thought to your audience when you speak in English?  How about when you write using the English language… do you think about your audience as you write your text at every stage of writing, from pre-writing to editing? This video created for ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) and submitted for a high school contest shows the importance of just that.  You need to be aware of who you’re communicating with. Simply put.

As ESL students who use English during the day (during casual situations, in class, at work, etc.) it is important to consider your audience. This will help to make your communication more interesting, significant, and relevant. In the “first place video” that was shared above, the Korean singer might appear to say something interesting and even significant when she points to one of many doting fans. She motions for him to approach her when she winds the window to speak to him. But if he can’t understand what she says, then the speech is not relevant. Hopefully, the questions that follow will help you to better focus on the content, tone, and language of your speaking and writing so as to propel your ESL skills further whenever you communicate. And your audience understands what it is you intend to say.

Regarding Content

Question:  How much does the audience know about the subject?

The type and level of knowledge your audience already has surrounding the subject determines how much background you need to provide.  If your audience is not familiar with your subject at all or does not know enough information about it, you may need to define certain vocabulary or explain something in detail first.  You might have to use some examples and illustrations. It might be best to use a familiar tone rather than an academic tone. No one wants to feel “lost” because the subject is too complex for them. On the other hand, no one wants to hear or read the same things over and over again and to be exposed to information that is already familiar. Even if you are speaking casually about something that happened, it is best to clue everyone in so they feel more comfortable about what is being discussed.

Question: How does the audience feel about the topic (especially if it may be controversial)?

If there is a possibility that your audience may be skeptical about what you are about to say, or if they are likely to be biased against your viewpoint or topic in general… then you probably need to find common ground first. Being objective is necessary before presenting other sides or in sharing more detailed information. Offering additional facts and allowing other viewpoints are necessary factors to consider. And there may be even sometimes when you need to avoid the topic completely with certain individuals or groups of people. Or you might need to not speak about it at all.

Question: What new information can you provide?

Think of what you can offer your audience and the purpose of your communication.  Do you expect to inform? Do you want to persuade? Are you trying to entertain?  Do you want to share some new information or to motivate your audience in some way to think more about an issue? If you think about the purpose at the onset of your preparation, then it will most likely be easier to decide the information that needs to be included: what to include, how much to include, etc. and how to speak up.

Question: What is your relationship to the audience?

Your approach will naturally be more personal with those who are your friends and peers. You can speak more freely and casually. However, if you are in an authoritative position, you will need to reflect confidence, certainty, and knowledge with the content you share. A more formal approach best matches this type of audience. And if you are in a subordinate position, you need to remember to be respectful for those who are in positions above you. You should never sound condescending, yet at the same time you need to offer something of substance when you communicate.

Regarding Tone and Language

alphabet A-Z

I think success is connecting with an audience who understands you and it is having a dialogue with them. – Lena Dunham, actress and filmmaker

Question: How does “audience” affect the style of your communication?

Not only can knowing your audience of listeners or readers help you to determine the information to include, this knowledge about your audience also helps determine how to convey the information most effectively. The tone and language of your speech needs to be considered. Should you share something that is personal or more distanced? How about something humorous or more serious? Would it best to use informal or formal language? These are important aspects that need to be thought about prior to communicating.

Question:  How should you address a diverse audience?

If you know anything about your audience from their gender, age, religion, education or experience, these factors (depending on your topic and purpose) are valuable insights in helping shape your communication. Your attitude needs to be accepting of your audience. You should never assume that your own culture is superior to another. You should also never assume that everyone in the audience shares your own views of the world.

You should try to use bias-free language. Biased language often leaves out some individuals and groups. Or it can assume things that are not true. Include only the most necessary information in your text. If possible use gender-neutral words like police officer rather than policeman. Do not speak negatively against anyone. Also it is important to be positive. No one likes to listen to someone who is negative and not “upbeat”.

Question:  How can I find out more about my audience?

You can use different methods in becoming aware of the background, attitudes and beliefs of your audience. If you are speaking face to face with your audience, at the onset of your presentation, you can do a “show of hands” to see how familiar everyone is to a certain part of what you are going to address. You can ask what they are most specifically interested in learning, etc. If the group is larger or you are conducting a presentation via teleconferencing or webcasting, it is suggested that you collect some data ahead of time with some type of questionnaire or survey. This could be done online as part of the registration process to save time for the attendees and also to be more efficient.

Another way to find out more information about your audience is to be sensitive to their mood at the beginning and during your speech. You can then tailor your presentation to their needs.

If you are writing something, you might be able to informally survey your audience as to what they might want to learn. If you are writing something that will be shared in class, you could ask your instructor and students for some feedback prior and during the writing process. If you are sharing something at work, you could ask a close colleague for some advice along the way.

Question: What are some specific tips to help with word choices, either written or spoken?

Simpler Sentences – You should use shorter, simpler sentence structures. It is not a good idea to get too complicated. This will only lead to the likelihood that your audience will tune you out. They may become bored or confused. Be careful of the overuse of pronouns so it is clear who you are talking about. It is helpful to have an effective introduction to grab the audience’s attention. Try to appeal to your audience on a personal level with using an anecdote, sharing interesting statistics, asking a pertinent question, or get the audience to participate in some way. Don’t overwhelm your audience with too much information. Share only what is necessary and the best information. Try not to get off on tangents that interrupt the flow of your communication and can distract and confuse the audience.

Topic Clarification – You need to tell your audience why your topic is important. If possible, it is helpful to connect your material to related issues or larger ones. Another suggestion is to connect what you are saying to their lives or to other information to offer more stimulation and interest.

Use of Repetition – A good communicator repeats crucial points and key terms. This makes it easier for your audience to take in all of the information and to connect it to their own life, other text and the larger world context. You could restate what was said in a different way or you could summarize what you said. You could ask if your audience understood or if they had questions.

Strong Organization – It is helpful to use order in your text (first, second, third) or summary (i.e. “I have discussed the background of such and such”). These clues help the audience to put together the information you are sharing in a way that is easier to follow so more of their attention is directed on the content. They will be more equipped to remember what it is you had to say.

Question:  What are additional ways to improve my speaking and writing for a given audience?

If you are writing a text, you could ask a native speaker or some of your friends to edit what you have written. Are the pieces of information clear? Does the audience feel connected? Are there some areas that the description or argument does not flow? Are there some sections that could be improved with better ideas, better word choice, and overall better use of the English language?

If you are speaking, you can ask a trusted friend before or afterwards, to point out a few things that you could improve on. Maybe it is a vocabulary word or grammar that was misused. Possibly you forgot an article in front of a word or you repeated yourself too much. Then see if you can work on these areas for the next time around.

Or if you have time, you could focus your English study on these targeted areas. Various resources online, books at the library or bookstore, 1-1 tutoring, assorted English classes through community sites, an English class at a university or an online ESL class are all ways to help you improve.

Successful, Fluent Communicating in Writing and Speaking

Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking. [And continue throughout your speaking and in your written communication.] – Peter Guber, film producer

If you take the time to know your audience and match what you are saying to what they want and like…

When you know the mood the audience is in and can project their responses and needs…

And when you know some unique characteristics about a given audience to “grab their attention”…

Then the audience undoubtedly becomes more interested in what you have to say… whether in speaking English or in written language. Don’t worry about any mistakes – that’s how you learn.

In general, if the audience can feel that there is good communication, then they will be better listeners. They will be more apt to enjoy the conversation, the presentation, the writing, the written text. You will feel satisfaction and this will help build your confidence for continued ESL speaking and writing. You will be on your way to becoming more fluent ESL speakers and writers.

A successful communicator achieves the goals of expression. He/she best meets success by knowing the audience and gains confidence in the language. The actor Nicholas Cage claims that he “…cares about the connection with the audience”.  Hopefully you can see the importance of caring about the audience, too.

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Please write to me below and tell me what you think about this article. I hope that it offers you something to think about that is interesting, significant, and relevant.

A kooky idea about what to do

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.