How Routine Causes Speakers to Forget Their Audience

I recently sat through a sermon at church where the pastor, a great guy who also teaches at a Bible College as a Missions Professor, taught at a level that far exceeded the capabilities of the audience. His sermon was very good, but I found myself struggling to stay engaged, partly because I wasn’t mentally prepared for the level he taught at. As I realized this, I glanced around at the audience and saw a sea of glazed over eyes.

Image of an audience

I’ve been told numerous times to know my audience. It’s one of the most common pieces of advice speakers are given, and I have very little doubt this Pastor knows all about it. But because he isn’t the Senior Pastor (and thus doesn’t preach every week) it’s safe to say the majority of the teaching he does is probably in the classroom. The familiarity with his regular audience could be the reason he taught at such a high level in the sermon I heard. (As a side note, it’s usually recommended that Pastors teach at a 6th to 7th grade level.)

Trainers can face a similar issue when they train the same type of audience on a regular basis. Good trainers work on their presentations for maximum impact and efficiency. This work breeds familiarity with their audience and can lead to complacency. Not in a negative way, but in the sense that they don’t have to think about who the audience is because they know it intimately. Over time, this familiarity can lead to instances like the Pastor above, where a suddenly new audience is overlooked.

So how can you avoid this trap? This is one of those times it would be easy to say “just don’t do it.” Awareness of a potential problem can often be enough to prevent this issue. But I generally find in my life that it isn’t practical to just “be aware” of issues. I overcome this through the use of checklists. (One of my all-time favorite books, more because of its impact on my life than for how exciting it was to read, is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.)

Reviewing a simple checklist before each training presentation serves as a great reminder of things you know but sometimes may forget. There is a reason pilots review their pre-flight checklist every time – even when they’ve flown the same aircraft for decades.

The checklist might include things like this:

  • Consider the make-up of the audience. Are they:
    • More one gender than another?
    • Predominantly one socioeconomic group?
    • What level of education will they have on average?
    • What previous experience do they have that is relevant to the subject matter?
  • Have I adjusted the curriculum/presentation to fit the time allotted for this event?
  • Have I accounted for the event dress code properly in my wardrobe?
  • Do I have all the A/V worked out correctly given the available connections?

Build your own checklist based on how you train. Keep it generic enough that it will fit most of your similar events. You can always leave blanks at the bottom for customizing it as you plan an event. Most of the time, reviewing it can be a mental exercise that reminds you of key things. Checklists have saved my backside more times than I can count on two hands and two feet. What can you make a checklist on this week that will support you?


This entry was posted in Authoring, Communication, Speaking, Training. Bookmark the permalink.

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