It helps to be a bit of a social and verbal chameleon. Matching your language, demeanor, and expression to the expectations of your audience is generally a good thing.
Adapting yourself to your audience is not about abandoning your personal style or changing your message to suit someone else’s expectations. It’s about increasing your personal accessibility. Even if you are preparing for a speech or presentation that’s intended to stir the proverbial pot, you can still increase your appeal by ensuring that your vocabulary, expressions, and even your behavior is consistent with the social norms of the audience.
We adapt to different codes of language and behavior constantly in our daily lives. Those who don’t usually find it difficult to get along with all but a small minority of people. Those who can generally find it easier to meet new people and navigate difficult social situations. The key is adapting yourself while maintaining authenticity.
So how can you stay authentic while still being a bit of a social chameleon? It has less to do with modifying the opinions you express and more to do with modifying the way you express them. Try to match your words and speaking style to the words and style of your audience. Watch for common expressions or slang that you can pick up and deliver back at them. Avoid colloquialisms that might be unfamiliar to the people who you are addressing. If the audience expects very formal language, dress things up; if they are more casual, tone the formality down a notch.
To get really, really good at being a social chameleon, expose yourself to the current pop culture of a wide variety of groups. Listen to other varieties of music, read a wide range of online and print material, learn about different cultures. The goal isn’t to become an expert on three hundred different social groups; the point is to prime your brain to notice social customs quickly and easily. This will help you adapt at the drop of a pin.
Remember: we generally like people who are like ourselves. How can you be more like the person or people you are speaking with?
I’m frequently asked what the most important skill in speaking is. It’s pretty simple: listening. I’m not being trite or spouting cliches! To be a good speaker, you must be a good listener. You need to listen with your ears, eyes, and brain – and not always in that order. Really skilled communicators, really dynamic and engaging speakers are the way they are because actively and intimately listen to and observe their intended audience. By giving his audience – be it one or many – his full attention, a speaker is able to figure out what the audience needs to perceive, needs to feel, needs to hear in order to adopt the speaker’s line of thought.
In short, the speaker has to know what his audience wants and how to connect the audience’s wants with his own desired outcome. But outside of asking someone flat-out (and hoping that they actually know what they want and are answering truthfully), how can we figure out what their needs and desires are?
Again, you achieve this by listening. I use the word ‘listening’ to encompass visual information as well as auditory information because really listening to someone involves more than just sensory hearing. It involves shutting off your own internal monologue so that you can take in as much information as possible while being sensitive about what it tells you about the other person.
People provide a huge number of clues about themselves by their manner of dress, their body language, their words, their voice, and more. Are they conservative or trendy dressers? Do they sound nervous or confident? Are they making steady eye contact or regularly looking away? What is their voice quality? What sort of words are they using? Do they seem forthcoming with information, or are they being reluctant or cagey with their answers? Are they focused or distracted?
This can be done with an entire audience, albeit in a slightly different way. You can get a ‘feel’ for an audience if you allow yourself to take in their group behaviour. Is there a lot of shuffling or chatting? Are people focused on you? Are they leaning forward and interested, or do they seem aloof? Are people laughing in the right places or responding when you call on them? How are they connected to one another, what commonality has brought this group together?
Listen. Listen closely and carefully. As I said, this is pretty simple, but like many simple things it isn’t easy. It takes close attention, focus, patience, and practice. The rewards, however, are powerful.