Understand the audience to make your speech understandable to them
kiṁ kariṣyanti vaktāraḥ śrotā yatra na vidyate
nagna-kṣapaṇake deśe rajakaḥ kiṁ kariṣyati
kim — what; kariṣyanti — will achieve; vaktāraḥ — speakers; śrotā — audience; yatra — where; na — not; vidyate — is present; nagna-kṣapaṇake deśe — in a town of naked sādhus; rajakaḥ — a washerman; kim — what; kariṣyati — will do
“What can expert speakers do if there is no like-minded audience? What can an expert washer-man achieve in a town full of naked sadhus?”
— Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāram, Sāmānya-nītiḥ, Verse 426.
In public speaking, speakers are often encouraged to prepare their content carefully and to deliver it clearly, confidently, charismatically. Working on content and delivery is certainly important, but it doesn’t guarantee that the speech will be well-received. If people are just not interested in a particular subject, then even a well-prepared, well-delivered talk on that subject may fall flat. This can happen especially when speakers speak on spiritual subjects because not many people are interested in spirituality.
To trigger people’s interest, spiritual speakers can and should try to present their message creatively. Still, there’s a limit to how much creativity can help – sometimes, people may just not be interested. As this verse states, a washer-man can’t find customers among those who have resolved not to wear clothes.
Having said that, interest is often a function of relevance. Education experts say that adult education is largely driven by relevance. Unlike school students who feel obliged to study for getting a degree, most adults don’t feel obliged to study. If they do study, that’s usually because the subject interests them or is relevant to their needs. And for spiritual talks, most of the audience comprises adults. So, spiritual teachers need to make their presentations relevant to their audience’s felt needs.
Why felt needs? Because, in the ultimate analysis, spiritual knowledge is an essential need for everyone; after all, every living being is essentially a spiritual being. But just as most people don’t realize that they are souls, so too most people don’t feel the need for spirituality. Of course, once they start understanding spiritual knowledge and appreciating that they are souls, they recognize that spiritual wisdom is their vital need. Till they come to that level of understanding, they need to be shown how spiritual knowledge serves some of their present needs. To do that, teachers need to take time to understand their audience’s felt needs.
Let’s consider two examples of relevant presentations of spiritual knowledge:
- The rebranding of God as a cosmic therapist:
In the past, when people were unsure about getting their basic bodily needs, the portrayal of God as a provider of cosmic supplies such as food and water was relevant to the audience. Nowadays, when these needs are more or less steadily provided for, especially in the Western or Westernized world, people don’t feel the need for any cosmic provider. But with people facing ever-increasing mental health issues, they do feel the need for therapy. So, the portrayal of God as a cosmic therapist clicks with them. And because God is the provider of all our needs, both physical and psychological, this portrayal doesn’t stray from reality. But its application can stray if spirituality is reduced to feel-good pop psychology, wherein unpalatable or transcendental subjects are hardly ever discussed.
- The battlefield setting of the Bhagavad-gita:
Many people see themselves as go-getters and think of philosophy as the recourse of armchair scholars. Countering such stereotypes, the Gita’s setting shows how philosophy is foundational for sound decision-making, something that everyone would like to do. The Gita, a profoundly philosophical book, is presented in the Mahabharata, which is an epic filled with romance, action and intrigue – topics that attract most people. And within the Mahabharata, the Gita is positioned at a highly suspenseful moment, just before the climactic war. By demonstrating how the quintessential go-getter, Arjuna, took time out to understand spiritual knowledge, the Gita’s setting emphasizes that spiritual knowledge can guide everyone in making their life’s defining decisions.
How can speakers understand their audiences’ needs? One deceptively simple yet remarkably effective way is to learn to hear from the audience, not just expect to be heard by the audience. When given an opportunity, people share what is important to them – specifically, which parts of a talk spoke to them or added value to their life; and generally, what issues attract their attention and occupy their heart. Practically speaking, speakers can’t hear from everyone in the audience, but if they make themselves available for interactions before or after their talks, the more articulate, outgoing or concerned members of the audience often come forward and share potentially valuable feedback. If speakers thus understand where the audience is coming from, they can customize their future presentations to serve their audience’s needs.
By such customizing, will spiritual speakers be pandering to the audience? Possibly, but not necessarily. It can become pandering if spiritual speakers start speaking on non-spiritual topics just to attract a crowd. But it won’t be pandering if speakers seek to understand the circle of the audience’s needs, find out where that circle overlaps with the circle of spiritual wisdom, and start their presentations with that area of overlap. Such an approach will attract more people. And not just attract but also benefit – benefit both by giving them wisdom they can use and by fueling their curiosity to explore spirituality further.
Think it over:
- Why do spiritual speakers need to understand their audience?
- How can spiritual speakers make their presentations relevant?
- What precautions do spiritual speakers need to take while addressing the needs of their audience?
(I thank my friend and scholar, Hari Parshad P, for providing me with the Subhashita and the image)