Communicating for Connection

The Role of the Audience in Communication

by Doug Witherup / October 1, 2015

I picked up a book recently by David Byrne (lead singer of the band, The Talking Heads) entitled How Music Works. It’s an odd book for me to read, specifically because I’m not a Talking Heads fan, and generally because I prefer talk radio to music. (I know, nerd alert.) But Byrne’s treatise is insightful, thoughtful, and interesting. His basic premise is that the medium not only is the message, but also determines the message. Byrne chronicles how everything from caves to concert halls to the invention of LP’s and cassette tapes (remember those?) influence what music sounds like and how it is written and performed.

One of his insights has to do with the audience factor. Anyone who has ever spoken or played in front of a crowd knows that the audience has a lot to do with the atmosphere of the event. For instance, as a preacher, I’ve preached the same sermon in front of different crowds and the results have been drastically different. While there are multiple factors involved, I wouldn’t hesitate to say the biggest factor is the receptivity of the audience. As Dave Ramsey says, “audiences have a personality.”

So the question for communicators is, to what degree do you focus on the audience during preparation and delivery of a message? This is a key question for preachers, but also for anyone who communicates, such as teachers, business leaders, and sales people. This is where we can learn a lesson from musicians. Part of the gift of the artist is sensitivity to the feel of the room. Great artists know not only how to write, practice, and play great songs, but they know how to connect those songs to people.

Byrne discusses both sides of the equation. He writes, “I’ve been to performances, usually of pop music, where the desire of the performer to please the audience becomes such an integral part of the show, and eventually so annoying, that I can’t hear the music anymore. On the flip side, I’ve been to performances where the performer . . . ignores the audience completely.”1

You’ve been there too, haven’t you? You’ve listened to sermons or lectures or sales presentations where the speaker tried too hard to “connect” with the audience, and it made for an awkward experience. On the other hand, you’ve heard material presented that was loaded full of information (maybe even good information) but you were struggling to answer the question, “What in the world does this have to do with my life?”

So back to our question: to what degree should you focus on your audience? An entire dissertation could be done on this topic, so forgive my brevity here, but allow me to offer one suggestion: connect, but don’t cater.

As you are preparing a lesson plan, sermon, or sales presentation, think through who will be in the room. What ages are they? What will their day have been like before they listen to you? What might be going on in their world? Why should they listen to what you are saying? What difference will it make in their lives? Then look for ways to directly connect to the people in the room.

But don’t cater. While the audience should influence some of the stories you tell and how you apply the material, it shouldn’t influence the actual content. Don’t change your message (what you have to say) or your personality. To do so would be to sacrifice integrity. You have your message and your personality for a reason. So don’t try to say something else or be someone else. Say what you have to say and be yourself.

This is a skill that any communicator is continually learning, sometimes with greater degrees of success than others. It’s more art than science. But as you learn to connect while note catering, I think you’ll find a better feel in the room and a greater receptivity to your message.

1 David Byrne, How Music Works, (San Francisco: McSweeny’s, 2012).