Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is it all about the audience?

One of the more common half-truths regarding public speaking is that it’s not about you, it’s about your audience. Mary Darling used it for the title of an article posted on a Psychology Today blog on March 5: How to Give a Presentation, Part 1: It's not about you. She said that:

“….The bottom line is: It's not about you - it's about your audience.”

Similarly, in a blog post on February 25 Lisa Braithwaite said that:

“….It's ALWAYS about the audience. It's not about you.”

Last April in a CIO magazine article on how to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking Maryfran Johnson also said that:

“…your focus needs to be in one place only—on your audience. It's not about you. It's all about them.”

Is this the whole truth?, Well, not exactly (as some Hertz car rental ads used to say). Without the presenter there would be no presentation, and the audience would not be sitting there listening. However, the statement is intended to wake the speaker from narcissism and the commonly held opposite viewpoint that it’s all about me. For a hilarious illustration, see this Savage Chickens cartoon about cell phone users.

A speech is a two-way communication. There is a transmitter (mostly the speaker), and receivers (mostly members of the audience). Information is being transferred, like the painting shown below, with some of the contents of a bucket being poured into a vase or jar. If things go well there is a focus on the audience, and the vase doesn’t get overfilled.

Audience-centered speaking is not a new idea. In his 1936 book on How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie said to:

"Talk in terms of the other person's interests."

In the February 1938 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, the Denver writer and novelist Marian Castle lamented that:

“….I am tired of the Gimme school of oratory. I beg that every speaker who is about to take from his hearers their only irreplaceable possession - time – be required first to spend five minutes in silent meditation examining his motives to see whether his speech is being given for the good of his hearers, or only for the good of his own soul.”

The Wikimania audience photo is by Joi Ito.

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