Presenters, focus on your audience, not your anxiety

February 09, 2012 | Presentations, Verbal communication

It would seem obvious that we need to be focused on our audience while presenting. There would be no presentation without the audience, after all. We’ve written and rehearsed the speech with the audience in mind, and will be speaking and looking directly at them while articulating our thoughts.

So focusing on the audience is automatic.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. Not without truly conscious effort.

To truly focus on our audience means concentrating on their visual reaction and feedback while presenting.

Yes, we look out to our audience. Yes, we see them. The problem is most presenters don’t actually read their audience. In other words, they aren’t paying attention to how audience members are reacting to their remarks.

Here’s one of the most common reasons for this: We’re so nervous about our performance, so concentrated on what we’re going to say next, we overlook focusing on the audience in a detailed way. Under these circumstances we treat the audience as a mass demonstration, rather than a collection of individuals.

There’s another reason for this disconnect. Any audience has more than its fair share of unfriendly or blank faces staring at us catatonically. With optics like those, who wants to make genuine eye contact? What presenter wouldn’t feel dyspeptic with that kind of response to their finest public speaking efforts?

We need not despair. The expressions usually have nothing to do with us. Gaze out at most audiences of any substantial size and we will almost certainly find polarity among its members. Some people who are alert or smiling, while others wear dour or bored expressions.

Regardless, pay close attention to what the audience is silently communicating. Here’s why.

The audience provides us with an enormous amount of feedback that can benefit us. Unfortunately, this torrent of feedback usually goes lost.

Think about when we have a conversation with a person. We are highly attuned to how the person is reacting to everything we’re saying, every motion we’re making, every question we’re posing. That rarely happens when we’re speaking from the dais.

The solution is to read the audience by paying strict attention to what the crowd is telling us with facial expressions and body language. If we truly concentrate on the audience and look for the feedback it’s sending our way, we’re likely to see:

  • Heads nodding
  • Confused or bored faces
  • People shifting in their seats
  • Someone taking note of what we’ve just said
  • A person playing with their smart phone
  • Someone dozing
  • Someone checking their watch
  • Heading to the restroom
  • Raising their eyebrows with rising interest level
  • Raising a hand to get our attention
  • Cupping an ear to indicate we need to speak more loudly
  • A hand waving off our latest comment, as though to indicate we’re all wet
  • Whispering to a colleague

It’s always a good idea to notice how many people are making eye contact with us. If the percentage is less than 80 we might not be striking the proper chords.

In each case, we have something to learn, something to potentially adjust to. By paying attention to such indicators we can gradually refine our delivery. We speak louder when prompted by the man having difficulty hearing us. We give an example to clarify our point and wipe the confused or incredulous expression off that woman’s face. We pick up the tempo to increase the energy level so bored audience members will come back into our fold.

Be responsive. Then notice how the audience feedback is altered by our own attentiveness and responsiveness.

Remember that we cannot embody the poise required to really concentrate on the audience if our delivery is too feverish. Slow down. Modulate the rate of information being imparted to the audience so its members truly absorb what we’re saying. When we slow down we also give ourselves a chance to absorb what the audience has to “say” to us through its visual comeback.

The audience focus also helps reduce our anxiety because we’re less self-conscious. If we consider ourselves the most important person in the room, it’s no wonder audience members would perceive that we’re giving them cursory attention.

Think about when we’re at a business networking event having a one-on-one conversation with someone we’ve just met. Think how quickly it becomes apparent to us when that person isn’t really interested in what we’re saying. How do we most effectively salvage such conversations? We cease our monologue and instead ask the person a relevant question. Suddenly they’re engaged again because it’s about them.

We must do the same thing while on stage; make our presentation about our audience members. They will pick up this shift in attention very quickly. Instead of us downloading a torrent of information we think they need to know, or assume they’ll be interested in, we attune ourselves to the audience and let it guide us. We make adjustments based on what the audience is transmitting to us.

By focusing on audience members we connect with them, and they feel a sense of connection with us. They are far more likely to be careful and responsive listeners. And we’re far less likely to get to the end of our presentation, ask for questions, only to find not a single hand goes up.

What happened?

We lost our audience. They weren’t paying attention to us, and we were clueless about the situation because we weren’t paying attention to them. Now we’re in an embarrassing situation where the event’s master of ceremonies bails us out by quickly vamping together a clumsy question. Ouch!

Genuinely focus on audience members and they’re far more likely to ask questions in the midst of the proceedings. Indeed, people will often indicate by their facial expressions and body language that they would like to interact, to ask a question. Call on them. Why wait until the very end to entertain questions? The questions people ask along the way are yet another guide wire that informs us about the right content to deliver.

We are especially effective when we know our subject matter cold and can easily make content adjustments on the fly. The atmosphere changes when we stop talking at our audience and start talking to our audience. The distance between us and them closes. The atmosphere warms.

Imagine, back at the business networking event, a person looking to do business walked up to us and started rattling off his sales pitch. We would be put off. We’d realize this individual has his mind made up about what to say regardless of whom we are or how we reacted. The person has just turned us into a prop of his marketing campaign.

Yet, that’s how so many public presenters regard their audiences. They take their place on the stage, immutable script in hand and start prattling away. How does that come across to astute audience members? Like this…

You listen to me.

Here is what I have to say about that.

Homilies are fine for preachers, not for presenters. We cannot become mesmerized by our own soliloquies.

Think about when we’re audience members. We want the energy to flow in more than one direction. Our audience members are no different. They want to feel the interplay. Give them conversation not disquisition.

Without that audience connection much of what we have to say, regardless of its sophistication, turns to pabulum.

People aren’t nearly as impressed by the grandiloquent presenter as by the person who shows a genuine awareness in their presence.

Let’s commit to tuning into our audience members. They will give us plenty to go on.

Mike Consol teaches public speaking, PowerPoint presentation skills and business writing to companies and business professionals in the Oakland-San Francisco-San Jose Bay Area. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 925-449-1040.