Audience Realities

present with people Jul 31, 2023
How Your Audience Learns Best




Over the last 20 years in the marketplace and in churches, I have had the opportunity (misfortune?) to sit through thousands of talks, and a few times I have delivered talks. I’ll admit that some of those were to the chagrin of the audience.

I’m still growing in the “how” of public speaking. You may not know me, but I have been told I have an interesting voice. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that one of the “interesting” pieces is that I don’t have a lot of inflection. I often joke that “this note” is the only one God gave me.

I also have ADHD, and mid-talk sometimes, I have to push back against a wandering thought…”I wonder who decided standard dice should have six sides?” I put my left hand in my pocket a lot, make eye contact with the same three people over and over, rely both too heavily and not enough on my notes, fail to segue from topic to topic…

But while the “how” of public speaking is very much still a work in progress, I would like to pat myself firmly on the back for my work on the “who.”

Knowing your audience is just as important as knowing what you’re supposed to be presenting about.

Fail to know your audience and you risk throwing your preparation for your talk straight into the proverbial toilet. There are a lot of skills that make the delivery of a talk more effective, but if your talk fails to engage your audience, it doesn’t matter how few “ums” and “erms” there are or how enthusiastic you were with your tone and body language.

Before you work on your content or your delivery, you need to learn your audience.

If you’re thinking, “That’s impossible,” I encourage you to check out this website: – Yes, it’s an acronym for Let Me Google That For You.

Perhaps you’ve been under a rock since the late 1980s, but the Internet is a treasure trove of information…and also you’re not going to believe it but Guns N Roses and The Cure are both still on tour. The Internet can help you learn all kinds of things about your audience if you try hard enough: demographics, generally held beliefs and frustrations, etc.

Beyond the Internet, you can ask someone else that has experience with the audience such as a local business owner, a local politician, a pastor or other church staff member, or a previous manager. Ask them, “Who should I expect at this thing?”

I don’t want to just tell you how to know your audience, I want to give you a place to start.




Here are four things that are generally true about every audience.

1. People have short attention spans. 

Studying pure attention spans, adults have an average attention span of about 12 seconds. That means that every 12 seconds or so, your most attentive audience members are thinking of something other than what you’re talking about and must use energy to refocus on you.

This is primarily done subconsciously, but even autonomic functions burn calories. As a talk progresses, your audience is using more and more calories to stay focused until a point where their body chooses to no longer burn those calories to stay focused, and the audience member’s mind wanders.

Sometimes, we confuse attention span and focus span. Focus span is how many 12-second intervals I can redirect my attention to a specific input before I run out of energy and allow my mind to wander. Focus spans can differ from person to person, but 20 minutes is a good average. As your talk stretches on, think about all the calories you’re asking your audience to burn.

There are lots of studies from academia about attention spans to help educators know how long they can expect students to stay engaged with a lecture because engagement will result in greater retention.

As our mind wanders, our retention drops because we conflate inputs. Your audience members will start having wayward thoughts and may get home and think, “I know the speaker today said something about forgiveness, but I can’t remember what that has to do with those thoughts I had about six-sided dice.”

TED talks are 18 minutes for a reason, and that reason is neuroscience. TED says 18 minutes is plenty of time to flesh out an idea while also being short enough for the audience to digest all the important details.

If focus spans max out around 20 minutes, then shouldn’t we consider that when preparing our talk?

If you have more than 20 minutes planned, first ask, “Do I have to do more than 20 minutes? What bad thing will happen if we end early?” If you absolutely cannot just do 20 minutes, then ask yourself how you can break one talk into two or more distinct talks with very obvious transitions between them…but I bet most of the time, nothing bad will happen if you give a solid 20 minute talk. Just think of all the content you are saving for next time.

2. Cognitive backlog is real.

People can only handle so many variables at a time. American businessman Phil Crosby coined the phrase, “No one can remember more than three points,” and preachers across the planet have utilized a three-point sermon model for decades.

Many talks are persuasive in nature and hinge on the basic principle of “if this, then that.” If you buy this car, then you’ll pollute less. If you engage in this behavior, then you’ll experience this life benefit. Each “if this, then that” scenario is a relational variable for your listener. If your talk uses the math of “if this and this and this, then that,” you’ve just given your audience three variables.
These relational variables are housed in your working memory while they are processed, and that working memory has a capacity. University of Queensland professor Graeme Halford found most humans cannot represent relationships between more than four variables. This means that when it comes to decision making, we as speakers must consider the number of variables and thus decisions we are asking our audience to consider…and guesstimate how many variables they are already processing.

Your audience is thinking about their kids, what they’re going to make for dinner, how much they pay for Paramount+, and whether that amount is worth it to watch Star Trek reruns. Perhaps as speakers, we should trust that if we do a great job, we’ll get another chance to share with our audience, so maybe, just maybe we should only give them one new variable to consider.

One action step. One “if this, then that.”

3. Most people aren’t auditory learners.

Academics describe four major learning styles: visual, auditory, written, and kinesthetic. Studies have revealed that as much as 65% of the general population are visual learners. People can process images 60,000 times faster than text, and people retain 80% of what they see, compared to 20% of what they read, and only 10% of what they hear.

And yet, so many of the talks we give and experience are exclusively oral. About five years ago, I saw Seth Godin give a talk at a conference for entrepreneurs, and his talk, which was less than 20 minutes, was complemented by DOZENS of related images. Images! Not just the text of what he said repeated on the screen behind him.

I can’t tell you who any of the other speakers at that conference were, but I remember Seth Godin’s talk and what it was about. If our goal is to engage our audience, we need to know that most of them do not primarily learn by hearing and are naturally inclined to retain very little of what they hear. What can we do to engage the majority learning style?

Quick aside before I get to one encouraging point:

I mostly work in the religious nonprofit space and have spent hundreds of hours consulting with church leaders. For a group of people who speak with people A LOT and also often refer to people being made by God in God’s image, it is mind boggling how little attention is paid to how people are made when it comes to adapting to their audience.

Speaking of adapting, in the Bible, Paul talks about being Roman when in Rome, meaning adaptation to our audience is important. Yet, church leaders all over the country expect their audience to adapt to them on Sunday mornings. Intentionally or not, this attitude can come across as arrogance to your audience…not the best jumping off point for community building.

In 2019, Pew found the median length of sermons in the United States was 37 minutes, meaning more than half the sermons in the US are longer than 37 minutes. This is despite audience preferences (and attention/focus spans).

In 2020, Lifeway found that 44% of churchgoers prefer sermons shorter than 30 minutes and 69% prefer messages less than 40 minutes.

Typically, long sermons directly correspond to the number of variables the preacher wants me to engage or actions they want me to take…Three? Four?

I can almost count on one hand the number of speakers who often use images to reinforce what they are talking about.

Church leaders, we can do better. If we want life change to happen, we must adapt to our audience. I’m so tired of talking to people after church and saying, “What was I supposed to do?” and “Why does that matter?” because my mind wandered off into the land of dice, or the message got mixed up in my working memory with the talking to I need to give my kids later.

Back to our regularly scheduled program:

4. Most of your audience is motivated to pay attention.

So far, I have spent most of this blog talking about what we’re doing wrong when we speak to groups. There is hope though. In many cases, if you’re being invited to give a talk, your audience is motivated to be there. That motivation may give them the energy to hold their attention a little longer, push other variables out of their mind to consider yours, and grasp concepts even if they only hear them. So take heart, all is not lost.

However, if we take the time to know our audience, we’re more likely to see retention and implementation. We’re a lot more likely to be invited back, and those great ideas you cut to stay within your audience’s attention span and variable limit will make a great launching point for your next talk.


By Matt Murphy - VP of Mission Support, Stadia

Matt is a church consultant and incredible bass guitarist. He likes watching the Baltimore Orioles and playing Uno Attack with his family.