How do we decide what we like in a speech, as a member of the audience? The question is an important one for speakers, whether professional or not, since being well-received by your audience is important for future gigs or promotions.
And don’t tell me you don’t care. I’ve seen too many speakers get a laugh and then desperately try to do more of the same to get more laughs to believe that speakers can forever rise above audience acclaim. There’s some part of us all that craves the drug of positive feedback.
You might be tempted to respond that it’s a hopeless question. The well-known French saying, chacun à son goût, "to each his own taste," captures the uselessness of debate about how tasty something is because we each react differently to the same stimuli. So you might believe that audiences are a mosaic of personal responses and—beyond some obvious general rules, like "don’t speak for 6 hours straight without a break"—there are no universal guidelines for pleasing an audience.
That’s where a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications (2023) comes into the debate in a very interesting way. What if we agreed that individual matters of taste vary infinitely, but that we all constructed those reactions in the same way?
Dr. Kiyohito Iigaya and his team have been studying human aesthetic responses. In this study, he used brain scans to see what our brains are actually doing when they form aesthetic judgments.
It turns out that we create our responses not from comparing the experience, say, of looking at a painting, to our learned or innate art or painting values, but rather by breaking the art down into its component pieces and then scoring it on the number and intensity of chunks that we like. The process is very similar to how we decide whether or not we like food. We rate a piece of cheese, say, by the amount of fat, sugar, carbs, and micronutrients that our taste buds determine that it has.
In the same way, we break a painting down into its colors, representations, shapes, etc, and rate it according to the number of pleasing elements that it has. Lots of red? A pleasing face? A nice tree? Whatever our particular faves are get totted up in a kind of aesthetic score.
We do this so quickly that we’re not aware of our scoring system. It feels to us like we take the experience in and react to it in a holistic way.
What This Means for Public Speaking
The implication for speakers is that we can create popular speeches by assembling the chunks of crowd-pleasing matter and putting enough of the good stuff in to make our audiences happy. A few jokes, a good story or two, and pretty soon we’ve got a hit.
Politicians do something similar to this when they assemble focus groups, give them rating buttons to push, and have them react in real time to a speech. You’ve probably seen the instant ratings on television for important debates. Once the politicians and their staffs figure out what causes the rating line to go up, a phrase or a word that scores high, they’ll put more of that into the candidate’s stump speech until it’s all good news.
Of course, a speaker has a body of work and a real purpose, and it’s not just about pleasing the crowd. But if the crowd hates your talk, you won’t get a chance to share that body of work with the world, so a certain amount of understanding of what pleases an audience is key. And now you know how the audience is forming its judgment you can analyze your speech and bump up the good stuff accordingly. Four point nine ratings here you come!