Audience as Mentor, Part 1: Make Time for Questions

It was a pleasure to contribute to a series of three interviews by fellow science communicator Elie Diner. In the second of that grouping, I noted “Honestly, the best mentor for a speaker is the audience.”

As a presentations coach, I often sit at the back when a client is giving a talk so I can equally watch the audience’s reaction. This allows me to give feedback to the speaker on how their talk resonated. It also gives me a valuable perspective on how the audience reacts to a talk that I know well. This helps me give more examples when I advise future clients on how to structure and deliver a successful talk.

Watching audiences helps me with my own talks as well. Noticing when attention focuses or drifts. What gets a laugh and what gets a slow nod of understanding. Whether people’s heads dart around to different parts of a slide. Importantly, how often those heads look to the slide and look to the speaker.

You do not need to be a speaker coach sitting in the back of a room to learn from an audience. You can learn from your audience every time you give a talk.

Over the next few posts I’ll provide some tips on how you can learn from your audience(s). Heeding these tips will help you prepare for your next talk, and use that experience to keep getting better.

First and foremost, listen when your audience speaks.

This is your first chance to hear how you did, even though it might seem to come in the form of people asking you to talk more. That’s right, the question and answer (Q&A) portion is about them, not you.

Why? Because Q&A is the first opportunity that audience has to start talking about the ideas you presented. In a way, the talk becomes the audience’s as soon as you finish speaking – not after you have left the room. 

Good presentations are the start of conversations; Especially in a forum where your talks is meant to get the audience to put your ideas into practice as soon as possible.

Not valuing Q&A is the worst thing you can do as a presenter.

I have run over 50 (science) policy briefings in Washington, DC. This is a venue where the Q&A is the most important part of the event. All the time limits I give and the authority I place in the moderator are engineered to ensure at least 30 minutes of questions in a 90 minute program. With typically four panelists, this means each is solely on stage for about 10% of the program. The audience gets at least three times as much time.

The target audience in a briefing on Capitol Hill, and in other venues of parliamentary activity, are the staffers to the elected officials. These (often young) professionals have an immense amount of influence on what gets noticed in the political process. Convince a staffer that the idea or problem you are discussing is important, and they will make sure it figures into their boss’s reading material, remarks, and possibly bills … that could become laws.

But if staffers do not get a chance to ask questions of you, chances are they will move onto the next topic at hand. And in a busy environment like Capitol Hill, there are many other topics to draw attention.

The Q&A is the opportunity to pause after the presentations and hear a discussion on the initially regarded merits of the ideas presented. That pause can be vital to even a passive audience member deciding whether to pay more attention. If their peers are interested, perhaps they should be. If all they see are 2-4 experts talking about this with a room of 40-100 people not discussing it right away, then it looks like a minor little curiosity of societal activities. There are bigger fish to fry.

A briefing with no time for questions is a failed briefing.

Put another way, in a workshop I once attended given by Phil Waknell, he said “It’s their talk,” meaning you deliver this presentation to a group of people who then regard it in their minds. Their forward thoughts and actions are influenced by your words. In a sense, your presentation becomes their own (mind) talk.

Therefore the Q&A is the audience’s (first) turn to present to you. It just happens to take the form of questions that you (and possibly fellow panelists) have the first crack at responding.

When you prepare your talk you are also preparing for Q&A.

If your purpose of giving a talk is to get something from the audience—their financial investment in you, a job, funding for a project, access to influencers, an invitation to a bigger audience—then how the Q&A goes is of vital importance to you.

While you give over the room to the audience, how you prepare for your talk can be a big help in how the Q&A runs. The key is to have poise in the moment to make the most of the content you have prepared.

In the next post I will focus on how you should hold yourself during Q&A. If you think this is hard to do because you are not the one asking the questions, you have not prepared your presentations in the best way.

Put audiences first so your ideas influence action.

woman with white shirt raising her right hand
Photo by Josh Sorenson on

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