When a speaker claims, “I really wowed that audience,” he or she is taking far too much credit for the success of the presentation. Why? Because give the same speaker an audience who doesn’t offer interest and support, and the result will be dismal. Far more than we estimate, audiences play a central role in the results of a speech.
Here are ten audience behaviors that will boost every speaker’s performance:
ONE: GIVE POWERFUL VISUAL CUES
In the photo above, Amy Sullivan Hammond illustrates the expression that would energize any speaker. Her posture is alert, and her pleasant demeanor reflects that she is enjoying the speech. Too, she appears inquisitive. She is making direct eye contact. Contrast this with the audience member who is doodling (or texting, which constitutes the contemporary version of doodling), looking out the window, or–at worst–nodding off with closed eyes. Again, note Amy’s vibrant nonverbal participation. She serves as a role model for facial and physical messages.
TWO: BE PUNCTUAL
Arrive several minutes before the speech starts, and when the group breaks for refreshments or a meal be among the first to return to the meeting room. Invariably, latecomers prompt other audience members to turn around to see who opened the door, and they become more distracted when the tardy attendant has to crawl over several people to reach his seat. The speaker notices those movements, too, and loses a vital sense of audience command.
THREE: SILENCE YOUR ELECTRONICS
Imagine that you’re addressing an audience, when suddenly a cell phone goes off–and continues ringing, because the owner cannot remember which pocket holds his phone, or a lady starts digging through her purse to find hers. If you were the speaker, you would become uncomfortable, and probably annoyed. As a preventive precaution, silence your phones, pagers, and beepers before you walk into the auditorium. You and the speaker will be glad you did.
FOUR: PARTICIPATE, BUT DON’T DOMINATE
Most presenters recognize the value of audience participation. Discussion brings variety of format, and often introduces provocative ideas. Your speaker will be delighted when you offer a comment or question, and will even welcome a challenge to her stated position. Yet keep your comments brief, and don’t comment too often, so you’ll give others a chance. As elementary school teachers tell their classes, this is “share time,” and no one person deserves total attention.
FIVE: AVOID SIDE CONVERSATIONS
An amazing transition happens when we become adults and start speaking in our company meetings, in civic clubs, or at professional conferences. Suddenly, we become acutely aware of how noticeable side conversations are. During our high school days, we assumed the teacher didn’t see or hear us because we sat on the tenth row. Now we realize that those mumblings and murmurings remain conspicuous even when the chatterboxes sit as many as twenty or thirty rows from the podium. So hold your chit chat until an announced break.
SIX: BRING RELEVANT MATERIALS
Completing an evaluation form after an all-day seminar, a participant complained: “Why didn’t somebody tell me I needed something to write with?” Sound atypical? Unfortunately, it isn’t. As a session begins, the speaker might hear “I didn’t bring along the information you e-mailed us. Got a spare copy with you?” Avoid sounding unprepared. Demonstrate that you rate the session valuable enough to come equipped with all relevant materials. Your speaker will welcome that courtesy, along with the eagerness you reflect.
SEVEN: JOIN THE APPLAUSE
In show business, comics refer to non-responsive audiences as “sitting on their hands.” For the speaker, that’s discouraging. So when you agree with the speaker’s statement, show your appreciation by applauding. Don’t worry if you’re the first one to applaud, others are likely to join you quickly. Certainly you retain the privilege of not applauding when you don’t endorse the speaker’s words. Again though, when you’re in favor of what is said, express your approval through applause.
EIGHT: DON’T CHECK YOUR WATCH
Next time you’re part of an audience, note what happens when someone near you checks her watch. The person next to her checks his. People across the isle see their action, and look at theirs. Does the speaker notice these time-checkers? Yes, even from farther away than you might guess. Well, what if no one else saw you check the time, not even the speaker? You still are not giving the speaker your complete attention. So trust that the speech or meeting will end in a reasonable amount of time, and stay absorbed in the message.
NINE: INTERACT WHEN INSTRUCTED TO
Today’s speakers recognize that people learn more and remember more when they interact during a presentation, under the leader’s guidance. However, some audience members lack enthusiasm for these activities. Either they leave the room, or they remain and start reading their e-mails. To support your speaker, go along with the interaction she requests. Although the words and motions might seem pointless initially, most of the time the dialogue or brief team work will make a valid point that amplifies the theme. Your speaker will appreciate your cooperation, and you will gain perspective you’d miss otherwise.
TEN: COMPLETE THE EVALUATION SHEET
Frequently a presenter asks you to complete an evaluation sheet after the speech. Although we’re tempted to gather our belongings and head for the exit, we will assist the speaker greatly with our candid, constructive feedback. As long as you offer your recommendations tactfully, your speaker will use your suggestions to improve his speech for the next audience. When you write, “PowerPoint slides needed more graphics,” the speaker will insert photos and clip art to enliven the visual aids. Tell what you liked, too: “I’m glad your speech was so well organized, made it easy to follow.”
In short: As an audience member, potentially you are a valuable ally for the speaker. Follow these ten suggestions, and help speakers accomplish their mission, so you and others will get the full benefit of the expertise they offer.
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