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Understanding Your Audience



          Your audience is at least half of the picture in a communication/public speaking setting. You, the speaker, may think the whole speech is about you and your message, but the speech/message is nothing without your audience. The receivers of the message are an important ingredient; therefore, it is important to know your audience. When you know your audience, you will be more successful, can more easily leave an impression, and will be able to tailor your message to them effectively.

Hierarchy of Needs

          Before you can tailor your message to an audience, you must understand their needs. This is especially helpful with persuasive speeches, although understanding your audience in any speech is an important aspect for success. Audiences have certain needs, some of which are obvious, and some of which are not. These needs must be understood and potentially addressed if the audience is going to entertain the possibility of changing their values, beliefs, or actions. Abraham Maslow hypothesized there was a hierarchy of human needs in his 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation.” These needs can be thought of as a pyramid. The width at the bottom of the pyramid suggests that more people attain these needs than those higher up the pyramid. You may stay at one level or move down or up depending on if those needs have been met. Movement on the pyramid may be situationally based in that you may be higher on the pyramid in different situations at different times.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs can be thought of as a pyramid. Our most basic needs are the foundation and builds up from there.

  1. Physiological Needs: These are your physical needs like food, water, or sustenance—our basic needs.

    • Example​: Do you have access to food or water (if needed)?

  2. Safety Needs: These are your feelings of security—that you are free from harm. You have a home or shelter from the elements or are in a safe location.

    • Example: Are you an environment perceived as safe?​

  3. Social Needs: These are your family, friends, companions, and groups. When we have the security of family and friends, we feel comfortable venturing out and trying new things or doing things differently and in turn moving up to possibly a higher level on the pyramid.

    • Example: Are you making friends or feeling supported by your peers?​

  4. Self-Esteem: This is when you feel good about yourself, your actions, beliefs, and values. It is an internalization of emotion and feeling. Without the support of your social elements, it is very difficult to feel worthy and have self-esteem. Good self-esteem allows you to reach for the highest level.

    • Example: Do you realize that you are not a bad speaker?​

  5. Self-Actualization: This is when you step out beyond your perceived abilities and comfort level, having progressed through the lower levels of your needs being met. It is the realization of your potential or self-fulfillment of your highest needs. This could be “going for the gold,” “reaching for the stars,” and “being all that you can be.”

    • Example: Do you realize you can be a speaker and can impact other people through your messages?​


Think about your audience. What is their hierarchy of needs? Draw a pyramid and put down a few examples into each level of needs. 

Primacy/Recency Theory

Primacy is the first thing your audience hears or sees.

Recency is the last thing your audience hears and sees.

          Humans are more attuned to the things they encounter first and the things at the end. We operate under a sense of primacy (primary – first) and recency (recent – last). Primacy, in this context, is the first thing your audience hears or sees. It may be how you approach the lectern, or the energy you have with your first sentence of the introduction. The first portion of your speech tends to stick with your audience the best. They may be more prone to listen to the middle information if you have gotten their attention first. Recency is the last thing your audience hears and sees. It refers to how you end your speech not only in terms of what you say but also the physical energy as you leave the lectern. With the last portion of your speech, you can inspire action in your audience. They will be more likely to want to do the last things you say.


Perception is the process of becoming aware through feeling, seeing, or experiencing things through the senses. 

          The adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is quite true. Perception is the process of becoming aware through feeling, seeing, experiencing things through the senses. Your audience holds a perception of you. Perception is how they make sense and interpret what they are seeing and hearing . . . how they perceive your message; your actions; your character; your use of ethos, logos, and pathos, and so on. You can do as much as possible to have the audience perceive you with high esteem, but it will be their decision as to how they want to perceive you in the end.

Review Questions

1) What needs to all audiences share? How should you address these needs while speaking? 

2) What is primacy? What is recency? How do they relate?

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