Know Your Audience: 8 Principles for Speaking Effectively in Almost Any Situation

So Boring! photo“You knew your audience.”

That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received in ministry.

It happened after speaking at a Prayer Breakfast at a US Army base in Germany. One of the military chaplains pulled me aside. “Thank you for that talk,” he said. “You knew your audience. It’s unusual for a civilian speaker to understand who he’s speaking to and what we’re going through. What you said really helped.”

I was grateful, honored and stunned. I’ve never been in the military. I don’t come from a military family. I’d never even set foot on an active military base before that morning.

So I asked the chaplain why it had been helpful. Then I sat down and reverse-engineered the entire event to find out how it had come out that way.

What I discovered were 8 principles that I had fallen in to. Principles that I will now follow with purpose whenever I speak to any group, but especially to a group I’m unfamiliar with.


1. Show Up

How many opportunities do we miss because we don’t show up? Sometimes we say “no” because of scheduling issues, sometimes the situation doesn’t seem to be valuable. But here’s the simple truth. Nothing will ever happen if we don’t show up for it.

Showing up for this talk wasn’t easy. Not only did we have to raise the funds to fly to Germany (thanks, readers for helping!) but, while driving to the base, our car broke down. OK… I broke it. I put gasoline in the car because that’s what I always put in a car. Turns out, it preferred diesel fuel. (If I’m ever tempted to think the talk went well because I’m some kind of genius, that’s Exhibit A that I’m not.)

What should have been no more than a day-long glitch in our plans turned into an all-out disaster. It took a week for the rental car company to respond to our requests for help, leaving us scrambling for alternatives.

It would have been very easy to say “we’re stranded, we can’t make it, have the Prayer Breakfast without us.” But we didn’t do that. With the help of friends, we kept pushing through the challenges and did what we came to do.

Showing up is half the battle. Unless you don’t show up. Then it’s the entire battle. A lost one.


2. Ask Questions

The night before the Prayer Breakfast, I told our host what I was planning to talk about. She gave me that “OK, I guess you could talk about that” smile, so I pushed a little.

I asked a few questions about the situation on the base. Exactly who would be at the the breakfast? What challenges were they facing? How is closing down a base different from their usual assignments?

After a 20 minute chat, I went to my room and tossed out the talk I had planned. It wasn’t right. They didn’t need it. I changed my talk from what I wanted to say to what they needed to hear.

Yogi Berra famously said “You can observe a lot by watching”. You can also hear a lot by listening – and asking questions.


3. Acknowledge Your Ignorance – But Don’t Dwell On It

I’m not an expert on the military. So I didn’t pretend to be.

People with expertise can spot a poser. As a minister, there are fewer things more cringe-worthy than hearing a non-minister speak at a pastors’ conference who spouts all their spiritual bone fides to impress the room. It never works. Do what you know and leave the rest.

But don’t spend too much time there. Your acknowledgement of ignorance can be as simple as a sentence. Sometimes we need to acknowledge what we don’t know by ignoring the subject altogether.

Be honest with your audience. Saying “I don’t know” can be as valuable as what you do know.


4. Find Common Ground

I was a civilian speaking on a military base, so that made me a stranger. But I was speaking to Americans who had chosen to attend a Prayer Breakfast. God and country. We had that in common.

Once you find common ground, it’s a short step to the next principle, which is…


5. Speak from Your Strengths

If they’ve asked you to speak, it’s because they think you have something of value to say.

For me, the invitation was because of my book, The Grasshopper Myth. So I was there based on my work in a Small Church and with Small Church pastors.

Their military base is closing down. It’s one thing to work hard for growth. It’s quite another situation to work hard to close something down.

Working hard, but seeing shrinking numbers. Hmmm… I wonder who else might have that experience?

That’s why I was there. Not to speak about Small Churches or to Small Church pastors (although the chaplains in the room qualified for the title) but to speak from my experience into their experience.

How do you handle the emotional toll of working hard, but seeing shrinking numbers? I have some experience in that. So I spoke to that.


6. Stick To the Source

Facing a new and potentially challenging audience is not the time to experiment with new ideas or make stuff up. You can hurt people that way. Starting with yourself.

So I stuck to the source. I went to my room after the conversation with the chaplain and I opened my bible. Even when I don’t know what I’m talking about, God does.


7. Tell a Story

That night in my room I rediscovered one of my favorite bible stories about one of my all-time heroes. Caleb.

Caleb’s story is smack in the middle of Numbers 13-14, the passage that inspired the title of The Grasshopper Myth, so I didn’t have to look far.

Caleb started out as the only one of the 12 spies who said “we can take the land.” Joshua wasn’t heard from – not on that first day, anyway. It was only after everyone cried through the night that we see Joshua tearing his clothes in sorrow with Caleb the next day. (Numbers 13:30 – 14:9)

I told Caleb’s story at the Prayer Breakfast, then asked some questions. What happened that night? Did Caleb talk to the other 11 spies? I would have. Did he try to convince them all, but only win Joshua over? I think that’s likely.

Caleb faced a difficult task with very little evidence of success. Good people told him it couldn’t be done. He had less than a 10% success rate (1 out of 11 convinced), then a loooong time (40 years) watching everything collapse, before success finally came.

I encouraged them to be Calebs. Stand for what’s right. Keep at it, no matter how small the returns seem to be. Stay for long-term results. Be faithful.

Stories are universal. That’s why Jesus depended on them. When all else fails, tell a story.


8. Quit When You’re Done

I stopped talking before the timer told me to quit. That may have been their favorite part of my talk.

And now I am. So I will


So what do you think? Do you have any other ideas for speaking to a new or difficult crowd?

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(So Boring! photo from Adikos • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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2 thoughts on “Know Your Audience: 8 Principles for Speaking Effectively in Almost Any Situation”

  1. Great great stuff Karl. Again, it is just so cool that this topic comes up at just about the same time I am going through something similar.

    I got dragged into one of those dreaded “Facebook Debates” yesterday and it’s just something that sat with me like a brick all day. Then last night while in my men’s accountability group, we were talking about communication with our spouses, then it dawned on my why I was so upset.

    The guy I was having the “conversation” with, wasn’t speaking “to” me, or “with” me…he was speaking at me. Going along with what you said about common ground, I would add that there is nothing more infuriating when, even in the public speaking setting, someone is speaking “at” you from a position of presumed superiority. Being humble is necessary, and speaking the truth in love without placing yourself in the position of judge is an art form that we have to fight for every time we speak to our congregations or any audience for that matter.

    Without going into detail, I am pretty involved in recovery movements because I needed them at a point in my life. And there is a saying that I learned from a close friend when I was deep in the dirt, he said “everyone’s back is against the wall and everyone’s toes are on the line”, meaning that there is not ONE person who is living or who has ever lived that can claim they are “better” than anyone else. For me, those principles of recovery (the 12 steps etc…) really came to life and full meaning for me when I realized that they were not principles of recovery from something…but rather principles for following something new. For me, they were about being a Disciple. And part of being a disciple is humility, and as someone who speaks to people that humility needs to be amplified.

    1. Humility from a speaker, let alone a preacher. Imagine that. We all know that horrible feeling of being spoken “at” don’t we?

      There’s a lot of help in the twelve steps that people who aren’t in recovery can learn from. It’s strongly bible-based when you take out the “your higher power can be a doorknob” nonsense (which, from my understanding, was never in the original stuff anyway.)

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