Know Your Audience

Communication Competency Basics

Most presentations fall somewhere along a spectrum that has two poles: information that must be delivered and information we want people to get excited about, meaning that our presentations fall somewhere between informational and persuasive, with plenty of overlaps. When we are training employees or teaching them the ropes of a new system or policy, we’re in an informational mode, but when we’re trying to secure buy-in from peers or bosses on an idea, we are in a persuasive mode. The main determinant as to the effectiveness of either of these attempts is how well we match our message to our audience. 

Thoroughly examining our audience enables us to know what to say and how to say it. Knowing what to say is about knowing what makes our audiences tick—the things they care about and are invested in. Knowing how to say it is about knowing the communication style they will respond to best. 

​​Examining audiences to know what to say involves thinking about their values, which are directly related to their demographics. People of different genders, cultures, personalities, levels of ability, age brackets, and socioeconomic groups value different things, and often, we are faced with demographically varied audiences. To appeal to multiple groups at the same time, we need to find common denominators. Some of the most common things people care about are their money, time, family, career, well-being, and relationships; however, the complicated part is that different groups have distinct approaches to each of these. The best speakers strategically position their messages to touch on the values of the maximum number of people in their audience. When we can show audiences that we are helping them regarding some of these values, they are more likely to pay attention to our information. 

​Knowing how to talk to our audiences requires understanding the kinds of communication styles audiences prefer. Some groups like PowerPoint, whereas others want flip charts, and still others favor conversation. As well, different groups prefer different levels of formality or background knowledge. 

Excerpted from Patricia M. Buhler and Joel D. Worden, Up, Down, and Sideways: High-Impact Verbal Communication for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2013).

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