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Your Audience Speaks.
Are You Listening?

By Craig Harrison DTM, PDG

Try to decipher what you "hear" from your audience, what it means
and what you can do about it.

September, 2005
edition of
The Toastmaster

As speakers we naturally believe that our audiences should listen to us. But how well are we listening to our audience? Believe it or not, that's the key to really connecting with an audience.

It may surprise you to learn that your audience speaks.  I don’t mean the whispering and side conversations that may occur during your speech.  I mean the feedback they give you, the speaker, with facial expressions, body posture and attentiveness, throughout your presentation.  Applause isn't the only time one can "listen" to their audience.

Listen Before You Speak

Prior to be introduced for your presentation, what do you hear from the audience? Are they restless, listless, or something in between?  Are the people in the back making noise, the people in the sunlight getting drowsy? Has the previous speaker or activity lulled them into a state of complacency? Are they already psyched up from a previous discussion or interchange? I’ve been at club meetings where a provocative business meeting has left people on edge, or when a spirited table topics session left members on the upbeat.  Once my speech followed a hypno-therapist. I just wish she'd restored our members to their "original upright position."

Take the tenor of your audience before you approach the podium.  Note their state. You may wish to alter your remarks or the way you deliver them so as to better connect with your audience.  You can even tell your introducer to "rev the audience up" a little more if they are down, or to tone down your introduction if your audience is already flying high and your topic requires serious reflection.

Be "In The Moment"

Most speakers I know prepare extensively, including visualizing their speech opening prior to their arrival at the podium that day.  Yet when you are introduced and look out at your actual audience, you should not be  completely on auto-pilot.  Take a moment to gauge your audience's mood as you look out at them.

I've seen a speaker ask everyone to take a breath or two with him, so they could all begin refreshed.  I’ve similarly seen speakers, as a change of pace, ask their audiences to close their eyes for a moment while the speaker paints a scene in their mind’s eye, before continuing.  This breaks any spell that lingered from a previous speaker or activity.  I myself have asked audiences who have been sitting too long to stand up and take a fifteen second stretch break with me.

Sending and Receiving Information

Speaking isn't just a 'stand and deliver' proposition.  Speaking involves your receiving information as well.  Has your audience been properly predisposed to your presentation through the way you were introduced?  Did members laugh or "ooh" or "ah" where you intended them to during your own opening? Can they hear you? Can they see you?

By "listening" to your audience you can determine whether all members of your audience can hear you, whether people in the back as well as the front can see you, and also whether your audience is tracking your presentation in other ways.

What do the faces of your audience look like? Are they relaxed? Are they nodding in agreement?  Are they leaning forward, indicating they either can't hear you or are having trouble understanding you?

If you are using highly technical terms, speaking at a fast rate of speed, or possess a thick accent, your audience members may be expending additional effort to understand your speech and follow your train of thought.  As you "hear" this from furrowed brows or members turning to each other to ask "what did she say?" or "what does that mean?" you should either clarify your statements, slow down, or strive to enunciate more clearly.  Often, due to our time constraints, we're guilty of over-reliance on TLAs (three letter acronyms), jargon, or just trying to say too much in a short period of time. Especially in speeches, less is more.

Try to decipher what you "hear" from your audience, what it means, and then what you can do about it.

When the audience is fidgeting, they may be too hot. Lower the temperature in the room.  Is their fidgeting due to other causes, perhaps owing to your topic or subject matter?

Is your topic or subject matter making them uncomfortable? Especially if this was unintended you should acknowledge that you see your remarks are having this unintended effect.  Avoid "making your audience wrong" for their feelings or reactions to your presentation.  They have a right to react in any way they wish. Perhaps you're touching a nerve.  Your listening lets you know.

Some speakers will unintentionally divide their audience through their presentation.  Whether you’re competing in a contest or just trying to persuade your audience of your point of view, dividing your audience through polarizing remarks you make can undermine your efforts. Remarks that praise one group at another's expense part of your audience feeling smart, the other part just smarting from your remarks.  Strive to speak to universal themes or find the common ground among your diverse audience for maximum success

Sound Advice on Humor

It's said humor is invoked for one of three purposes: as a shield to protect, as a sword to attack, or as a bridge to connect.  Listen to your audience's response to determine if you are bringing your audience together, unifying and connecting them with your humor. If your humor is falling flat, you may be dividing your audience through humor that is only funny to part of the group: women or men, young or old, immature vs. mature, etc. Strive to use humor that all can revel in.

Another important key to humor: give your audience time to laugh! Use pauses to allow your humor to sink in. Your pauses send cues to your audience that they are encouraged to ponder your words, and react accordingly.  If they aren't laughing, it may be because you’re not allowing them the opportunity to laugh.  Take a breath now and then and watch the laughter flow.  For those competing in contests, realize that the larger the audience you speak to, the longer the audience takes to laugh.  Don’t get disqualified because your 7 minute speech at the club level goes 7 minutes fifteen seconds at the Area Contest and then at the Division level laughter pushes its time to seven and three quarters of a minute.  Plan accordingly so you can listen to your audience's laughter without it disrupting your speech's timing.

Give Your Audience A Place In Your Presentation

Without your audience you're just talking to yourself. Make sure your presentation has a place in it for them, and not just through their laughter.  Members of your audience want and need to be a part of your presentation.  They need to be acknowledged, enjoy being involved and respect a speaker that respects them.  Help your audience find themselves within your presentation.  Listen for opportunities for them to respond, react and be recognized and you will be listening to thunderous applause by speech's end. Whether you address certain members by name, acknowledge specifics of their experience, or reference previous events in the room, such customization within your presentation shows you've been listening, looking and learning about them and their experience.  Audiences love that!

So the next time you speak to an audience, don't forget to listen to them too. They'll hear you better when you do!

To really connect with your audience, purchase Craig's special report "What About Them? How To Be An Audience Centered Speaker" in print or as an e-book today!

For more speaker resources visit the Speaker section of Craig's Learning Tools webpage

© Copyright 2003-05 Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Professional Professional speaker Craig Harrison is a past district 57 governor who used Toastmasters leadership lessons as the 2004-05 president of the National Speakers Association — Northern California chapter. Visit www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com for additional tools for communication and leadership

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