By Daniel Kingsley
“The trick is to keep surprising yourself, never mind the audience”
One of the greatest fears of anyone speaking in public is that their audience is sitting there bored out of their minds or disliking what they are saying. I know this because I run regular public speaking workshops, and people tell me this. A lot.
Yes, there are exceptions, and I’ll speak about them later, but for the moment consider this. When you have been an audience member and someone has got up to speak in front of you: How much of the time have you wanted them to be good? How much of the time have you wanted them to be interesting? How much of the time have you been at least open to hear whatever they have to say? I’m guessing that the answer is most of the time.
And this is true for most people most of the time. There are some good reasons for this:
- You as a speaker probably know more about your subject than most of the people in the audience, so people are curious to learn your perspective.
- You’ve probably had some interesting personal experiences and stories that you can share with your audience – and (almost) everyone likes to hear personal stories.
- It’s actually uncomfortable to watch someone having a difficult time on stage, and much less painful for us in the audience when things are going smoothly for them. (There’s some interesting science about this to do with Mirror Neurons, but the bottom line is we usually don’t like to see other people in pain).
But they don’t look interested!
Now one of the big reasons that this is tricky for us as public speakers, is that once they get above a certain size, most audiences listen with blank faces, even when they are interested in what we have to say. Occasionally, some audience members may nod if they really agree with us, or shake their heads if they disagree, but this is the exception rather than the rule. This is very different from ordinary social behaviour, when people smile and nod to show that they are understanding us and encouraging us to continue.
The problem is that when we are speaking in public our minds apply the ordinary social rules to a situation that isn’t playing by those rules. The audience aren’t trying to encourage us, even if they’re interested because they don’t feel obliged to do this when they’re part of a large group. Yet our minds interpret the blank faces as showing lack of encouragement, lack of interest or even disagreement, because that’s what blank faces often can mean in a social situation.
And yes, there may be one or two people in any audience who don’t like you or what you’re saying. But do you want to focus on the 2% who are having a bad time, rather than the 98% who are interested? I’d suggest that focussing on the majority is going to give you much more confidence and a much better outcome as a speaker.
So, next time you’re met with a sea of blank faces here’s my advice:
- Assume that everyone in the audience is supporting you and interested in what you’re saying unless you have any concrete evidence to the contrary.
- If you are genuinely concerned that your audience may not be following what you’re saying – ask them!
- If you really want to know if anyone in your audience disagrees with what you’re saying you can ask the audience that question too. But usually that will come out in the Q&A, and mostly I’m very happy to wait.
Try it next time you speak, and let me know how you get on.