In Public Speaking Tip 12: Listen to Your Audience (Part 1), I shared some techniques that will help you listen more effectively to individuals.
But as a well-rounded public speaker, you need to be able to do more: You need to listen to your audience, whatever its size!
Is It POSSIBLE to Listen to Your Audience?
In some ways, listening to an audience is the same as listening to an individual.
In other ways, it’s quite different.
Which brings us to the question of whether an audience is:
- A big bunch of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time; or
- A unique entity that’s bigger than (or at least different from) the sum of its parts?
I’ve argued the first point — that there’s no such thing as a big audience, just an additive (1+1+ 1+1, etc.) collection of individual people.
And, in fact, when you’re talking to an audience, your best strategy is to treat them as if they’re a group of individual friends. This approach means that you speak to a “big” group with the same casual language and relaxed eye contact you’d use if you were talking to, let’s say, a group of 3 or 4.
In that case, you would look at one person and say something. Then you’d look at someone else and add your next point. You’d look at someone else, and add the thought after that one. Etc.
This is exactly the right way to talk to an audience; but is it the best way to listen?
To Listen to Your Audience, Start by Measuring Their Mood
Have you ever noticed that, in their stories about a particular event, reporters often mention the mood of a crowd. Consider these headlines:
Excitement in Argentina as Pope sworn in (Jerusalem Post)
Folk singer shocks concert crowd (NY Daily News)
McCain faces angry crowd, defends immigration plan (Christian Science Monitor)
How do the Jerusalem Post, the NY Daily News, and the Christian Science Monitor know these things?
Probably because our own experience confirms that crowds can have moods — and that an excited crowd feels very different from one that’s shocked or angry.
When you listen to your audience, you are assessing its mood over time.
You’re noticing if people seem to be engaged and excited — and noticing if that seems to change.
So How Do You Listen to Your Audience?
In Public Speaking Tip 58: Stand, Settle, Smile, Speak and Public Speaking Tip 12: Listen to Your Audience (Part 1), I noted that you have to STOP and LOOK before you can LISTEN.
The same thing is true here.
If you’re slogging through your speech with your head down, like a marathoner trudging up that last brutal hill, you’re not going to be able to notice the mood of your audience.
(In fact, you’re not going to notice much of anything.)
But if your speech includes frequent pauses — frequent opportunities to kick back, even for a second, and look at the audience — you will see and hear things that convey what your audience is thinking.
- Are people looking at you intently? They’re probably engaged with what you’re saying.
- Are they sitting forward in their seats, or holding their bodies in an alert way? They’re probably trying to catch your every word.
- Are they quiet, and do they seem focused? Congratulations! Your audience wants to take in, and remember, what you’re saying.
Of course, the opposite can also be true. If people are noisy, inattentive, slouching, or looking anywhere but at you, they probably don’t care about what you’re saying.
Or else, they’re just The Audience From Hell.
And while that’s every public speaker’s worst nightmare (“What if they don’t listen?”), knowing how they feel is better for you than not knowing. It gives you a chance to make changes, such as:
- Using more direct language, or talking more specifically about them;
- Wrapping up the point you’re on, in hopes that your next point interests them more; or even
- Cutting your presentation short, because sometimes things just don’t work out.
Still Not Sure What Your Audience is Saying? ASK THEM!
Most of the time, it’s actually OK to ask an audience how they’re doing.
If your speaking in a formal setting (like the State of the Union address, or closing arguments in a multi-billlion court case), or if you’re talking someplace (like a TED event or Toastmaster’s contest) where addressing the audience directly is discouraged, you can’t take the following advice.
But most of the time, you can ask your audience an occasional, sincere questions, such as:
“Is this making sense to everyone?”
“You all got that point, right?”
Or even, “Folks, you’re looking a little blank. Is everything OK?” (I asked that one, once, and an audience member yelled out, “Yeah, we’re thinking!”)
Admittedly, quizzing the audience on how you’re doing takes a lot of confidence, or sometimes desperation.
But the point is that, if the mood ever strikes, you’re allowed to do this. There is no secret rule book that says you have to maintain an impenetrable speaker / audience barrier.
In fact, Public Speaking Tip 6 talks about how audiences love it when you “break the fourth wall” (the theater term for this maneuver), and how this can help you recover from a mistake — think about how Jennifer Lawrence recovered after she tripped at the Oscar’s, by simply acknowledging what had happened.
It’s fine to use a technique like this to help you hear your audience’s feedback.
So What’s the Take-Away for Your Next Presentation?
Listening is a key part of successful part of public speaking — and that’s true whether you’re talking to one person, ten, or a thousand.
To listen to your audience,
- STOP spinning your own wheels, and LOOK at the people in front of you.
- Usually, you’ll be able to pick up their mood. But when that fails, and you really want to know, ask them.
Your audience will appreciate your effort to listen to their silent feedback — and you’ll enjoy speaking to them a lot more, because you’re connected!