Speaking to a Diverse Audience

Any professional speaker will tell you that one of the most important rules of speaking is to know your audience. For most speakers, this means hours of preparation researching the company or organization to which they will present their material. Speakers know that by reading trade publications, in-house newsletters and promotional materials, they will learn the jargon that is the language of that company.

Real pros will also inquire about the audience members themselves. They will ascertain something about the corporate structure, the VIP’s, those employees who have won awards, etc. This gives a speaker an “insider’s edge” when he or she stands before what is otherwise a roomful of strangers. By the time the speaker takes the lectern, a great deal is known about the audience. However, there is one more piece of information that a speaker might not know but must take into consideration when preparing a talk: Are there any attendees with disabilities? Below are a few tips that will help you to make all of your talks more accessible and inclusive.

When planning the audience seating arrangements, ask if there is adequate access for wheelchair users. Provide an extra-wide aisle for wheelchairs to sit amongst the audience. Wheelchair users should not be forced to occupy the very back of the room, or the very front row, if they do not wish to.

If you are using written materials, make copies available in a twenty-four-point font size. This is a standard large print text size, and will enable most people with low vision to access your valuable talking points. If you are making a presentation using slides or video, make a point to read the text as you go, or provide a brief narrative of the content. This can be accomplished smoothly and with discretion, so as not to needlessly draw attention to any individual.

For attendees who are deaf or hearing impaired, allow for seats to be reserved up front if you are not using a microphone, or near speakers if using amplification. Ask your assistant, sergeant-at-arms or the facility set-up crew to help attendees identify these seats. Remember that if a sign-language interpreter will be needed, provide an extra seat.

If speaking at a function that does not involve a meal, try to arrange for some water and a snack, at least. If no food is available, provide some fruit, candy or even trail mix. This can help attendees get through a long program. Remember that audience members with diabetes or hypoglycemia require access to food. Besides, hungry attendees are inattentive attendees.

When incorporating humor in your presentations, think very carefully about the jokes you choose. If you obtain material from humor websites, use the humor from their “clean” section. When in doubt, don’t use it. If you want to make a joke about an executive or supervisor in the group, approach him or her privately and ask permission first. While this is a good trick to ingratiate you to the rank and file, it may backfire. You never want to risk ruining what may be a well-crafted image. Stay away from the big landmines. You know the ones – no jokes about race, religion or sexuality.

On the other hand, self-deprecating humor almost always works well. Don’t overdo it, though. You don’t want to come across as though you are a victim seeking sympathy. Sprinkle observational humor throughout your presentation, and restrict it to subjects, such as bizarre policies or ridiculous procedures, equipment snafus, or humorous storytelling, with a point as well as a punchline.

As our society becomes more diverse, so does our workplace and so must our speaking skills. Remember that it is unwise to make assumptions about any group. The specific nature of that diversity may not be apparent, but that does not mean a careless remark will not deeply affect or offend a member of the audience who may have friends or loved ones who are proud to belong to a group you just disparaged. No one will remember your silly jokes, but someone is likely to remember that you took the time to provide large print materials. Accommodating the needs of a diverse audience is an act of consideration and respect that can only enhance your professional reputation.

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