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alastair humphreys speaking

Advice for Audiences

I’ve written before about advice for speaking in public. Today’s tips are about the other folk in the room during a talk: the audience.

We are all members of audiences from time to time. The way you behave in the audience has a huge impact on the speaker’s mood, confidence and performance. It’s very weird how an audience has a collective mood. Sometimes I give a talk and the audience is clearly ‘up for it’ – ready to enjoy the talk. Other audiences, for no perceptible reason, are so flat that it feels like speaking to an empty room.

Of course, it is the responsibility of the speaker to do a good job so that you are engaged, informed, entertained or inspired. But if you’d like to help the speaker with their job a little bit, could I suggest you do some of these things the next time you are a member of an audience listening to a talk.

  • Look at the speaker. Maintain eye contact with them from time to time.
  • Show the speaker how you are feeling: nod along if you agree, shake your head if you disagree, smile at appropriate places. This is so helpful for the speaker to gauge the impact of their words.
  • If the speaker says something funny, please laugh! Years ago I spoke at an event that was a really big deal for me and I was very nervous. Early in my talk I made a little joke. A friend of mine in the audience laughed very loudly. It encouraged other people to laugh. It calmed me down. It set the tone for the audience. It was a deliberate and very helpful act of kindness that I’ve always remembered. (Thanks, Paul!)
  • If the speaker asks the audience to engage with something (“hands up if you like cheese?”), humour them and do what they ask.
  • When the time comes for questions, stick your hand up and ask a question. It doesn’t really matter what it is, it just breaks the ice and helps other questions flow.
  • Unless the speaker is so bad that they deserve your scorn, or unless you are as busy as Barack Obama, refrain from checking your emails on your phone. It’s rude and incredibly disconcerting for the speaker.

It’s also interesting to notice how audience behaviour differs across the world. American audiences are wonderfully smily and enthusiastic. But a huge chunk of the audience will be fiddling with the phones whilst you talk. No problems with phone diversions when speaking in Asia, but there the audience just sits silent, unquestioning, extremely politely. It’s just normal behaviour, but I found it disconcerting at first. Australians don’t seem very interested in the touchy-feely emotional side of talks, but love the underdog doing something ballsy stuff. Speaking in mainland Europe I find the audience responses are only moderately enthusiastic (perhaps due to the different language groups listening to an English speaker), but the post-talk coffee breaks I find the response and questions I receive to be particularly energetic and positive. And British audiences? Well they’re a tougher crowd than many places, and you definitely have to win their positive vibes and engagement. But, probably because we have more in common than anywhere else I speak, British audiences are more responsive to the nuances of what I say and how I say it. Plus they love sarcasm.

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  1. I was chatting to a friend who does guided tours of Charleston just the other day, and she was saying the same: it make such a big difference when her group reacts to what she’s saying, makes eye contact, smiles, asks questions. Speakers are not television screens!



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