To create an opportunity for students to experiment with strategies for audience adaptation. To give students a chance to feel the discomfort associated with being listeners to a speech that was prepared with an audience different from the actual audience in mind.
Fifteen minutes of assignment explanation and planning at least one week prior to the speeches and then one seventy-five minute class session or one and a half or two fifty minute sessions to listen to and to process the speeches
Enough copies of the handout of the assignment description for every student and a topic idea for each small group when the assignment is made. A stopwatch and time cards for the day the speeches are delivered along with whatever visual aid support (overheads, easel) the speaking groups say they need.
I've always been a proponent of building "authentic" speaking assignments. I want students to consider their classmates as their audience, to have their informative and persuasive efforts target the student audience they see before them in the classroom. And yet, because the classroom audience is the group with whom they regularly interact, they assume similarity among the members and often neglect making a special effort to adapt to them. Only on occasion does a student rise to a high level of creativity in engaging their particular audience. Furthermore, limiting their audience to their fellow students gives them no opportunity to practice the kinds of adaptive skills they may find necessary when they speak to audiences following graduation. Another concern I've had about my students' limited audience adaptation skills is grounded in the fact that the vast majority of them are white, lower to upper middle class, midwesterners, who have rarely if ever found themselves in a situation where they were a minority of an audience in terms of race, class, age, religion or ethnic background. Their sensitivity to the need to reach out to all segments of their audience is, thus, often underdeveloped. They often have not experienced being "the other" as listeners and are occasionally suspicious that my appeal to overcome their ethnocentrism ought to be dismissed as an ill-conceived effort at political correctness.
As a consequence, I developed a class exercise, to be conducted in one or two class periods, that gives students an opportunity to play creatively with issues of audience adaptation, to become aware of their peers' efforts to adapt to a wide range of different audiences, and to experience being a member of an audience and overhearing a message that has not been tailored to the kind of people they really are.
What To Do Before Class
Prepare copies of a handout of the assignment description based on the one you find at the end of this article. Prepare one copy of the topic and audience statements and cut the pages into strips so that students can draw just one topic from the pile.
What To Do During Class
On the day that you make the assignment ask students to get into pairs or groups of three (you can decide what will work best for your class given the time constraints that you face). Tell the students that you are handing out an assignment that will ask them to develop a brief speech on a particular topic and for a particular audience so that they can practice a full range of audience adaptation strategies. Distribute the assignment sheet to the students and then go around the room with the topic strips and let each group pick one; ask them not to share their group's topic or audience with the rest of the class since "guessing the audience" will be part of the fun of the activity.
Give the groups at least 10 minutes to talk about what they might do to adapt to the audience, to divide up responsibilities for preparing the speech and, if possible to arrange a time during the next week when they might run through it together. If you know that meeting outside of class time is not feasible for your students, see the extensions discussion below.
At a later class session you can listen to the "Guess My Audience" speeches. You can have the groups sign up on the board to establish their speaking order and then the day can be handled like an ordinary speech day with a time keeper indicating to the speakers how much time they have left. As each group finishes speaking, let the class answer the questions 1) who do you think their audience was supposed to be and 2) what made you think that? Keep the discussion after each speech to a minimum so that all of the speeches can be heard. As the speeches continue, students will catch on that many groups had similar topics but they were asked to address different audiences. They will hopefully begin to notice evidence of subtler efforts to adapt to the audience than simply the use of examples relating to one group or another. Some groups will, hopefully, have made special choices about language and others will use a different delivery style in order to engage the attention and interest of their target audiences. During the presentations and the brief discussions afterwards jot down notes so that you can comment on them later.
What To Do After the Activity
After all of the speaking groups have shared their presentations, check your time and see how many minutes you have left for some more detailed discussion. During the discussion you facilitate, you might call their attention to adaptive strategies you heard that the class seemed to overlook. You might want to be directed by the reflection questions that are on the activity handout. If you have fifteen minutes or more to process the exercise, then you might have them get into small groups to talk about the reflection questions, especially the last one, before you facilitate a large group discussion. You might also draw their attention to any questionable efforts some groups may have made. For example, I've had students attempt to adapt to an audience of Senior Citizens by making insulting or stereotypical references such as "now that your bodies are falling apart..." It is clear that sometimes the speakers can't let go of the fact that the real audience in front of them is that of college age students whom they aim to entertain. I ask groups who did a particularly nice job to talk about how they went about creating their appeals. It is interesting to see how often they create a sense of appealing to an audience based on what they see marketers doing in the media.
Most of the discussion should focus on the adapting strategies of the various groups, but I also invite students to make more general comments about content and delivery so that the exercise can be part of the continual speaking improvement we aim for in the course. Near the end of the discussion I ask the class to consider how they felt in their role as listeners. Some will say things such as that they felt younger when they were being talked to as though they were in elementary school. Some will volunteer that they felt insulted, ignored or left out. Some will simply say it felt weird, as though they didn't belong in the room or that the speaker was trying to make them be something they weren't. If your class generates such responses then you have a ripe teachable moment to talk about the issues of ethnocentrism and exclusion that can be hard for some students to grasp. If I can't make the point I want to about ethnocentrism from the student discussion of this issue, I will sometimes go back to the issue of stereotypes and assumptions that emerged in the speeches themselves and talk about the dangers of over-stepping in audience analysis in a way that shows ignorance of the group to which one is trying to adapt.
Though such issues are terribly serious for effective public speaking, the day is typically a good deal of fun. Students unleash their creative energies and take a renewed interest in actually engaging the audience, since that is foremost in their mind at the time of their development of the speech. This is a nice exercise to do shortly before a formal speaking round since it gives everyone in the class a chance to get up and speak before the group in a relatively non-threatening situation.
If you work on a commuter campus where outside of class meetings are simply not feasible, you will need to give students some more time for in-class planning. I typically introduce this assignment on a Tuesday and let them meet for a bit that day and then we listen to the speeches the following Tuesday. If I knew that they would not be in touch with each other outside of class, I would give them time on Thursday to touch base about the speeches and another ten minutes at the beginning of the following Tuesday for them to run through their speeches in their groups before delivering them to the class as a whole.
If your group enjoys a little competition or won't do the work without earning classroom points for doing it, you can make the assignment worth points and give a bonus point to each group who is able to get their listeners to guess the audience correctly. If you do this, though, you will have to tell them that they will be disqualified or docked a point if they tell the audience exactly who they are during the speech. That will, hopefully, prevent groups from getting up and saying things like "now that you have reached your thirties and are successful businesswomen..." Creating different topic choices and audience scenarios can vary the exercise a good deal. I have found that making explicit reference to the religious, ethnic or racial background of the audience create special challenges. Students may employ stereotypes that give voice to prejudicial attitudes. If you are prepared to tackle such issues, feel free to work them into the topic descriptions. One profitable topic choice might be skin cancers which can be adapted to audiences of varied skin types and audiences from different regions of the U.S. or world.
Student Handout for "Guess My Audience"
You have drawn a topic and a speaking situation for which you should prepare a 4 minute speech. With a partner or partners, brainstorm about the direction your brief speech should take. What assumptions might you be able to make about the audience? What does this audience need to know in order to be adequately informed on this topic given the circumstances? What does this audience need to know in order to be persuaded about the topic? What should be the main points covered? Once you and your partner have settled some of these issues, you need to divide up responsibilities. Do a quick check for resources as needed–web sites may prove perfect for this task. The University Wellness center, benefits office, or an old textbook may provide all you need to proceed. Develop the speech, taking special care in your introduction. How can you best relate the subject to this audience? Are visual aids appropriate? Flip a coin to decide who will deliver the speech or divide it somehow–make it more like a “presentation”–and each of you can participate in the delivery. We’ll deliver them in class a week from today and then reflect on what we learned.
Guess My Audience: Reflection Questions
- How did the size of the audience have an impact on the presentation?
- How did the sex of the audience members have an impact on the presentation?
- How did the age of the audience members have an impact on the presentation?
- How did the situation inform you and your classmates about what needed to be done in the presentation?
- Using this exercise as the basis for your argument, would you say that creating and discovering the content or delivery is more important to a successful speech presentation? Why?