Michael Vivion, PhD, discusses the link between the speaker's purposes and those of the audience in this issue of Speak Previews®.

When the CEO of a financially-strapped company goes before a group of investors, his main purpose is to keep an investment in place or to obtain a new one. When he goes before his employees, his purpose is to reassure them that their jobs are secure, that he has new investors in line, that sacrifices will be worthwhile, that he has a workable plan to solve the organization's problems.

In both situations, the same cause and set of facts drive the CEO. His rhetorical purpose for each is different in perspective but similar in kind. He's trying to hold the line, to keep everything from breaking apart, to persuade both audiences that he has a difficult matter under control.

Speakers do—or should do—this type of purpose definition all the time. In drafting a presentation, we ask ourselves why we're giving it, what we need to accomplish, which messages are primary. In this sense, a speaker's purpose is a form of intentionality. What does the speaker intend? What does the speaker intend his listeners to feel, to think, to do?


To figure that out, a speaker needs to hop over to the audience side of the purpose street. He needs to analyze the audience, to consider its members from a variety of viewpoints: their biases, their education, their relationship to the speaker and to the organization, their power base, their emotional state.

But he must also realize that audience members will be listening with a purpose; part of his analysis is to determine what those purposes may be. Then he must develop strategies for aligning content and delivery not only with his own purposes but with those of the audience he has characterized.

Some members of the CEO's audience will no doubt listen to assess his credibility or his measure of confidence. Others will listen to be reassured, to hear reasons for investing their time or money, or to evaluate his proposals for a sound future. Many will listen with the purpose of placing themselves in his proposals, of establishing what their roles and responsibilities might be as the company moves forward.


While the CEO's presentation won't succeed equally with every listener, it'll come closest with those members of the audience whose listening purpose matches his intention for speaking. If one of his primary purposes is to explain plans to lift the company out of the financial doldrums, for example, he's likely to achieve greater success with audience members whose listening purpose includes hearing those plans.

I do much of my audience analysis on FDA Advisory Committees as I prepare drug development teams to present products to the FDA for approval. Invariably, one of my considerations is what might be driving committee members as they listen to the company's presentation or Q&A responses.

Some participants listen for an opportunity to have their voice heard. Others listen to serve as an effective screen between company and patients. Some want to ensure that the screen between company and patient is not an obstacle. Still others listen with the purpose of confirming their opinions of pharmaceutical companies or the FDA, whether bad or good.

All will be listening for evidence of safety and effectiveness, but their definitions of each may differ. And some participants will have individual concerns—patient education, for instance, or hesitation about novel delivery systems—that serve as their dominant purpose in listening.

So in development teams, we analyze and strategize. We harmonize speaker and listener purposes, fulfilling both. In other words, we walk both sides of the street, humming the melody. It's how we gain perspective and fine-tune it.