Are you reading your audience?

There are experienced presenters out there who can project, enunciate and exude confidence in delivery, but who are still missing a vital component of public speaking: he or she has never learned to read their audience.
Here are three questions to ask yourself the next time you present:

1) Are you ‘talking to’ or ‘speaking at’?

It’s all a matter of degree of course, but even the most formal presentation should be more conversation than declamation: speak in the way you would want to be spoken to and your words, tone and body language should be in concert. Open gestures and eye contact are a must (we don’t agree with the advice to ‘look over the heads of the audience’), try to make eye contact with the whole room or give the illusion of doing so. If you feel the dialogue is turning into monologue, throw in a question or two – these can be rhetorical if the crowd is large – as a well placed question will make the audience think and keep them involved.

2) Are you taking in the non-verbal reactions?

There is a reason why we have the expression ‘you could hear a pin drop’; stillness and silence in the audience is a reliable indication that they are attentive. Laughter is also excellent feedback (you may’ve heard the phrase ‘if they’re laughing, they’re listening’) as are slight tilts of the head and nods of approval or encouragement. It’s also important to acknowledge indications of collective boredom or impatience – heads sunk in hands, jittery feet, the crossed arms/feet/frown cluster – as a reliable sign that you’re losing them.

3) Are you prepared to adjust your content or delivery?

It is impossible to prepare for everything, but preparing a speech or presentation should include a series of ‘what if’s’. If you are preparing a pitch, for example, using a supportive friend to imagine and role-play a few scenarios (the panel interrupt with questions, the first point is not of interest, the time allocated has to be shortened etc.) makes your preparation more complete. The knowledge that you will be able to cope with the unexpected instills confidence and any surprises on the day are much less likely to de-rail you. 

The ability to read an audience is an important skill to develop and is often overlooked. It is a form of empathy, without which even the most compelling subject matter can fall flat.

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