Most of us will have to present to an audience in our career, especially as we progress into managerial or leadership roles. Some of us find it effortless, while for others it can be seen as a fate worse than death. So, what makes it so challenging?
Well, successful public speaking involves many elements, and the most successful speakers invest time in pre-work to ensure a smooth delivery. Many of us already do some things to prepare, such as researching the audience's interests, creating supporting visuals, or rehearsing in front of a trusted friend.
With all this preparation, we would expect everything to go smoothly, but that's not always the case. There's another critical aspect to consider: the audience. Sometimes, even with meticulous planning, our presentation might not resonate with them as we expected.
Our audience provides both subtle and obvious clues about how it's going. But are we willing to look for them? How often do we observe our audience while presenting and really pay attention to their facial expressions, body language, and other cues, rather than just skimming nervously over them?
Learning to read our audience is a vital skill for successful public speaking, even though it may seem intimidating.
To gain insights into reading an audience and handling the feedback you receive, we spoke to Shil Shanghavi AFAIM, a public speaking and story sharing specialist and the lead speaker coach at TEDxPerth.
Reading your audience
Acknowledging there’s a lot for presenters to think about, Mr Shanghavi said understanding the audience's reactions matters greatly because we are asking for their time, attention and trust.
"Time is something we never get back," he emphasised. “If we don't read the room and make others feel as though it's worth their time, their energy, their trust in us, it can make people dislike us, or not want to be there.”
Moreover, not understanding the audience, ignoring the energy in the room and falling short of their expectations can harm our credibility.
Mr Shanghavi shared a personal experience where his content didn't resonate with the audience, and he failed to respond to their energy and evident cues.
It was a mental health topic and despite setting the expectations, he sensed the audience's energy didn't match his talk. Avoiding the signs, he proceeded with the presentation, leading to a difficult and poorly received delivery. In hindsight, he realised his error.
“When people stepped into the room, I felt the energy didn't match the talk that I was set to deliver. And I ignored it. People had their arms crossed and were leaning back against their seats. They were looking at each other," he said.
“All the signs were there, that this is not an engaging talk, or it's not the right talk for this audience, on this day.”
So, what would he do differently in such a situation today?
Reflecting on another instance where he noticed similar cues in an audience of 350 people during his most popular keynote, he changed his approach.
He took a moment to assess the situation, stepped aside, and collected himself.
“I stopped speaking, went over to the side table and I got some water. I took a breath and I calmed down," he said.
“And when I came back, I changed the talk, gave it five minutes and realised the body language in the room was now more positive.”
Altering his talk created a positive shift in the audience's body language. By acknowledging the mismatch, making adjustments, and then sharing what he had done, he earned the audience's appreciation.
When it comes to determining whether your presentation has landed well or needs adjustments, Mr Shanghavi advises against making assessments based on just a few responses. He reminds speakers that not everyone will resonate with their style or content.
“I walk into every presentation, regardless of the size of the audience with a 20 per cent rule in my mind," he said.
“That 20 per cent of people will not like the way you dress, the way you speak, your content, your style, whatever it is.”
While speakers focus on reading the audience, it's worth noting that audience members may also be aware of being observed. Some may try to remain expressionless or choose seats at the back, especially if they're uncertain about their connection with the speaker or content. They may also want to avoid being asked a question.
It’s helpful to scan the people at the back or outer edges of the room to see their less conscious body language cues.
“I look towards the back of the audience,” Mr Shanghavi said, “because they are the ones who feel if they don't enjoy it, they can hide their body language because they're furthest away.”
So, what are some of the more common listening styles exhibited by audiences and what are they telling you? Mr Shanghavi shared his experience with interpreting audience reactions.
They're the audience members who are backing you to do well. These listeners tend to display very easy cues to follow such as nods, verbal agreements and engaged body language, indicating their support and enthusiasm.
If we see those signs from the audience, we can be fairly confident that we’re hitting the right note.
“Smiling is always an easy cue to follow. When somebody's smiling with their mouth only, it's a happy cue," Mr Shanghavi explained.
“However, when somebody's smiling with their mouth and their eyes, then it's an interested and happy cue.”
The distracted listener
As humans, we’re increasingly losing our ability to focus. An audience’s concentration may vary due to many different factors. Some may struggle with maintaining eye contact or appear preoccupied, they may fidget in their seats and quickly check their phones, but it doesn't necessarily indicate disinterest.
When someone looks away or avoids eye contact, there can be cultural, confidence or other issues at play.
It's important to understand that looking away or turning an ear towards you could be their way to focus on listening.
An individual’s attention can also be diverted by their own thoughts, so don't take it personally if someone seems a bit distracted.
“Somebody may be thoroughly enjoying the presentation. However, they may have a thought around needing to get home by five o'clock because their partner’s not going to be back and they need to make food for the kids,” Mr Shanghavi said.
But do look out for extended distractions, especially with devices and use facilitation techniques to redirect their attention, Mr Shanghavi recommends.
“If I'm delivering a keynote presentation, I will walk towards the table or the person who is on their phone. And then I continue my conversation as I get close to the table. By doing that, it discourages that person from being on their phone,” he said.
Perhaps of all the facial expressions, Mr Shanghavi advises that we look out for the people with a frown, which can indicate concentration but can also mean that they are uncomfortable or unhappy about what you are saying.
And do a scan of the audience to see whether it’s a limited number or whether there are more than a few. Don’t overly focus if it’s a negative minority.
“One person does that and we concentrate on it and we can lose sight of the positive signs that are coming through,” Mr Shanghavi said. “However, balance it out with what the rest of the room is doing.”
If people are thinking deeply, their facial expression may be accompanied by hand gestures such as chin strokes.
Maybe people’s body language has become defensive. Are there lots of folded arms? Has the energy in the room changed?
If so, check in with the audience to address any concerns as this can help alleviate their dissatisfaction.
There are always those in the audience who give us absolutely nothing by way of facial clues. Nada. It's natural at the beginning when people are deciding what they make of you and your content, but if it continues, check if your message is making sense.
“Recognise it, own it, ask it,” Mr Shanghavi encourages.
And shake things up if needed to regain people’s attention. “Start with something that people are not expecting. And don’t be afraid to switch the tempo if you've been speaking for too long,” he said.
“People can switch off. So, check-in.”
The impatient listener
Depending on the topic, we may have people in the audience who feel they know it already and want us to speed up. Rapid head nodding can be more a sign of impatience than agreement. Fidgeting and other physical adjustments may mean they are moving due to boredom.
“I was once asked to speed up,” Mr Shanghavi shared. “So, I stopped and I asked, 'Am running out of time?'
“It turned out that the individual had heard someone else say the same thing. But for others in the room, it was new information.”
Acknowledge the response and politely address their concerns and explain the need to cater to others who may be hearing the information for the first time.
Highly engaged but prone to interrupting, this audience member wants to share their thoughts or opinions without waiting to be asked.
While encouraging participation is important, excessive interruptions can cause other people in the room to become anxious, plus it disrupts the flow.
Setting boundaries helps to maintain a balanced environment. Mr Shanghavi gives people three interruptions.
“I use the rule of three. If it happens again, then I tactfully ask that person to wait until our presentation is over,” he said.
On one occasion, when an audience member further persisted, he even offered them the chance to join him on stage.
“He didn’t come up and from that point on there was no more interruption from him,” Mr Shanghavi said.
Some final tips to improve your public speaking
Understanding these different listening styles will help you to understand and engage your audience and give them a positive presentation experience. And when it comes to ways we can learn and grow in our public speaking, Mr Shanghavi gave three key tips.
“Firstly, pay attention to your audience and their reactions. Assign someone in the room to observe their body language and provide you with feedback,” he said.
This will help you understand if your message is resonating and if you need to make any adjustments.
Secondly, record yourself while speaking and watch the recording without sound.
“Pay attention to your body language and gestures to make sure they align with your message," Mr Shanghavi said.
And lastly, don't hesitate to ask for feedback from the audience. If you sense something is off, address it directly.
“Get comfortable asking people,” Mr Shanghavi said. “It creates a connection point, highlights issues and it's a quick way to move on past them.”
Remember, effective public speaking is more about engaging in a conversation rather than simply delivering a one-sided presentation. This two-way exchange involves noticing and responding to our audience’s cues.
So, with that in mind, be more aware during your next public speaking opportunity and enjoy a more meaningful interaction with your audience.