Watch and listen to your audience. You’ll definitely learn something.
I started this short series noting that when I attend a talk delivered by someone I’ve coached, I sit at the back to watch the audience. That decision serves dual purposes, but one is more vital than the other:
- I don’t want my speaker client to easily be able to see me. Strong and confident speakers don’t need the visual reassurance; for those who get a little nervous seeing a familiar face, I can be a distraction. So better to let the speaker address the room as they’ve prepared to do. It will give them more confidence for future opportunities when I may not be there.
- But more importantly for me as a presentations coach, I need to watch the audience for a sense of how this talk works with them. This observation post allows me to correlate my sense of the talk’s structure with how the talk actually lands. This gives me vital information that helps me prepare future clients even better.
As a speaker coach, the audience is my mentor too.
The group sounds and movements visible when you really watch an audience are very informative:
- where do their eyes track on a busy slide?
- if they are all over the place, no one is getting informed
- how do heads nod when a contemplative point is delivered
- if they don’t nod, something distracted them
- how many heads are bent with the glow of a mobile device in front of them?
- for some audiences this is the goal, as the message is broadcasting in pseudo-real-time; with other audiences it means widespread disengagement
- of those who sit at the back how tied into the presentation are they?
- people who start looking for the exits have other things on their mind
- how do signs of attention drift evolve over a long session
- pivoting heads are a polite but restless audience
- fingers raised to lips suggest a slow-burn of curiosity mentally setting up for an interesting Q&A
I take in all of this visual and auditory information to give genuine feedback to the speaker on how their talk landed. But most importantly I digest and learn from what I see to help me write, coach, and deliver better talks myself.
Audiences first design requires a lot of experience with audiences.
If you have spoken several times in front of the same sort of audience – a conference of your peers for example – you probably notice your talks get better with time. Some of that is familiarity with the attendees but a lot of it is probably some subconscious recognition that certain styles of delivery work better than others.
But if you are finding yourself with the opportunity or need to get in front of a different audience, I would love to hear from you. Especially if you are developing a talk for an audience outside your particular expertise. Whether you feel you need some editing advice to make sure the tone and style will resonate or some tips on how to prepare for an effective Q&A that keeps your talk in the audience’s minds.
Also, it is easy for me to say you need to listen to your audience while you are giving the talk. With experience this becomes more possible. But why not work with someone who spends large amounts of time watching audiences to know just how to delight and focus them?
I have spent years learning from audiences how to deliver better talks.