Informal educators live, or die, by how well they can engage a voluntary audience. To pull this feat off, you must become an expert at reading your learners. If you don’t develop your observation skills and self-awareness you’re doomed — no matter how many books you read, how many presenters you watch, how many years you present. The constant feedback from the audience guides how you deliver every word and action. They are your unpaid directors.
“The audience teaches you everything. That’s why it’s so humiliating to become a comic. Because you learn it all in public.”
Phyllis Diller (comedian)
Acknowledge the distortions of presenter world
Presenting is an unnatural act. Many of us step into our own little world when we stand up to present in such contrived circumstances — I call this mental space presenter world. It can be surprisingly different from the experience of our audiences and it accounts for most of the odd, distancing behaviours you’ll have witnessed when you watch people you know present.
You will notice this theme recur throughout the tools in this book. In presenter world, we tend to become more ego-centric; we feel more exposed; we tone down our character; we shut down our expressiveness; we experience time passing at a different rate; and we overestimate how visible our mistakes are to the audience. There are powerful psychological reasons that make us feel like this and we’ll explore them more in later chapters.
Avoid the glare of the spotlight effect
One of the biggest factors behind our retreat into presenter world is the spotlight effect. Even at the best of times, we often think people notice and judge us much more than they actually do. When speaking to a group, this effect makes us even more self-conscious. This is also one of the cruellest ironies of presenting. At the very time when the best way to connect with the audience is to monitor them and be present in the moment, our minds become obsessively preoccupied with ourselves. Consciously fight against this egocentric tendency. Focus more on how they are feeling and less on your emotions.
The better you know your script and activities, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have to monitor how the group is reacting. This allows you to keep making those small tweaks which will improve your delivery and connection with the audience.
Welcome their honesty
Experienced street performers are amongst the most engaging presenters I’ve seen. They have to be — boring buskers starve. No audience, no tips.
Similarly, the audiences which informal educators tend to encounter are transparent — they are often physically free to leave at any time; children have relatively short attention spans; they are mentally free to zone out, without consequence; and the larger the group, the easier it is to pick up on their nonverbal cues. Also, children are wonderfully expressive in showing their emotions. Even though teenagers are more muted in their verbal feedback, they can be brutal in leaking negative nonverbal cues, unlike adults who have learnt, through social convention, to disguise their boredom.
It might not feel like it at the time, but the painful honesty of free-choice audiences — especially children and young people — will be invaluable in honing your engagement skills for when you work with an audience of any age, voluntary or captive.
“When I am performing, I still feel that the crowd is about to walk away and that I have to do something to hold them in their seats.”
Whit “Pop” Haydn (magician, who used to do street shows)
Know your audience
Everything you do as a presenter is fundamentally affected by the nature of your audience. The more you know about them — or can reasonably assume — the better. This is difficult in informal education, but there are some key questions to consider about each audience, including:
- are they attending voluntarily?
- what are their expectations for the presentation and of the presenter?
- what are their biggest needs and concerns?
- how interested are they in the topic?
- what examples will be culturally relevant to them?
- how much can you safely assume they know about the topic?
- what misconceptions might they possess?
- are they likely to agree with your central argument?
- what do you expect to be their main objections?
- how well do they know each other?
- how open are they to interacting with you?
Obviously, there will be a variation in response to these questions across the individuals in your group but look for assessments which apply to the majority of your audience. This context will help you interpret their reactions during the presentation.
“When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him.”
Listen to the room
The best presenters care about and empathise with what their audience is feeling throughout the presentation. This responsiveness to each unique group makes the experience live and interactive. It also keeps the performance fresh and varied for you.
Even silent audiences are constantly communicating with you. They cannot turn off their nonverbal signals. Think of it as having hundreds of separate, noiseless conversations with your audience. Listen to these clues to help you communicate with them. Often the spectators aren’t even conscious of their side of the conversation, or if they are aware of it, they find it hard to control.
These are some patterns of signals for which experienced educators scan the audience, to see if they are paying attention:
- sitting upright or leaning in;
- looking at the correct point of focus;
- holding and returning your gaze;
- head nods when you make eye contact;
- smiling, alert and responsive facial expressions (especially their eyes, eyebrows and mouths);
- immediate vocalisations in response to what you do, e.g. laughter, gasps of surprise;
- asking relevant questions.
Danger signals for disengagement are normally the opposite of these cues, but they also include:
- turning their bodies away from you;
- frequent yawning;
- contagious bouts of coughing;
- off-topic conversations with neighbours;
- confused expressions when you are explaining;
- fidget feedback – repeated squirming or restlessness;
- interacting with their phones (unless they are tweeting how amazing you are).
Once you detect the signs of growing inattention, move immediately to change your pace or the variety of the hooks you are using. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for you to win them back. These changes, however, should be made confidently so that the audience does not sense your unease.
“Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing.”
Ralph Richardson (actor)
Avoid jumping to conclusions
Like words in a language, body language cues have subtly different meanings depending on the context in which they happen, e.g. situation, environment, gender, culture, etc. For example, when an audience member crosses their arms, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are being defensive or confrontational. We cannot read anyone like a book. You should, therefore, only interpret a person’s nonverbal communication by looking for consistent patterns of signals across each of their channels — face, eyes, posture, gestures and voice. Check also for agreement with the words they are saying. Each of your nonverbal assessments of their feelings can only ever be provisional.
Thin slice like an expert [ADVANCED]
Your audience reading skills will develop with practice. Experienced presenters acquire the ability to filter out and interpret the most critical signals from crowds. They learn how to ignore the millions of other cues that are not essential in managing the presentation situation at that moment. Psychologists call these almost instinctive judgements of complex environments thin slicing. They are common to experts in any field. For example, they have an uncanny knack in instantly deciding if two students at the back are discussing what has just happened or chatting about the match last night. This happens unconsciously through taking in and assessing multiple cues about the behaviour of the pair based on their vast experience. This is different to jumping to conclusions from a single cue.
Also, as you gain experience with different audiences, you will develop a sense of the typical ways various demographics respond in your presentations. If a particular audience starts to diverge from this pattern, it can be an early warning sign that they are not connecting with you or that they have become unsettled.
Track your audience barometers
When you are presenting to more reserved audiences, such as teenagers and adults, it’s helpful to identify the most expressive individuals. You can use them as audience barometers to indicate how the rest of the group may be feeling. Sometimes they will be the most influential or alpha audience members (6.3) — you will notice others gaze at them for clues about how they should react.
But don’t obsess over outliers
Just as you look for consistent patterns across one person’s body language to assess how they are really feeling, so it is with audiences collectively. Don’t fixate on the one or two people who may not be fully engaged with your delivery when everyone else is attentive. This will only distract you from continuing to connect with the majority. In the spotlight, your threatened brain thinks the worst of every situation. Ignore your ego. Do not take it as your personal challenge to win them back, at the detriment of everyone else. You will never know the legitimate reasons they may have to be distracted. These could have nothing to do with your presentation. Everything is not always about you.
Certain personality types (e.g. introverts) are thought to respond more strongly to facial expressions of emotion than others. This sensitivity puts them at risk of drowning in the deluge of nonverbal signals that an audience can emit and of over-reacting to feedback from outliers.
Be aware of age and cultural differences
Educators and parents appreciate how expressionless and unresponsive teenagers can become at a particular stage of their development. One reason this happens is that they desperately want to be treated as adults, so they try to behave in the same way they think grown-ups do. They are learning the display rules of adult expressions, but they become too inexpressive in an attempt to avoid immature exuberance. Try not to let any lack of initial response from a teenage audience affect your confidence. This does not necessarily mean they are not engaged and enjoying the presentation. They just forgot to tell their faces.
Also, when you are presenting to an audience from a different culture than you are used to working with, it’s easy to misinterpret their response. For instance, some audiences of adults in Asia may be less likely to interact and react during the presentation, compared to adults from Western cultures.
I’ve died onstage many times. During the subsequent post-mortem, with the benefit of hindsight and out of the spotlight, I can usually make a reasonable stab at the reasons for my demise. One outreach show, though, stands out in my memory and my reflection notes as particularly horrific and inexplicable.
I was performing a physics demo show for 17–18-year-olds in an isolated rural school on an outreach tour. I’d been presenting for about 12 years by then, but I’d never encountered such a complete lack of visible reaction from any audience before. No smiles. No questions. No laughter. No answers to my questions. No call-outs. No facial reactions.
They didn’t misbehave. They just sat there, watching but motionless.
I frantically ran through my emergency diagnostic checklist for quiet audiences:
- Bored? No, their eye gaze was attentive.
- Intimidated? I think I may have jumped in at too high a level in my opening. However, I soon corrected this and progressively lowered the level of my questions and explanations.
- Patronised? I asked questions at a range of levels, but I wasn’t able to get them to respond to any of them.
- Confused? In case they were unfamiliar with the interactive format of the show, I made my interaction cues and requests as clear as possible.
- Uncomprehending? My Northern Irish accent would have been unfamiliar to them, but I did my best to slow down and enunciate clearly.
- Offended? I couldn’t think of any incident where I had caused offence and their behaviour had been consistent from the start of the show.
- Too cool? They should have been past the most difficult period of the unresponsive mid-teens.
- Scared? I couldn’t identify any alpha audience members who were dominating the group and there had been nothing in the introduction by their teacher to frighten them into silence.
- Distressed? Nobody was showing signs of distress (apart from me), and if there has been a recent incident in the school, teachers usually warn me about this when I arrive.
No matter what I tried, I couldn’t find an obvious cause of their unresponsiveness. This is my Achilles heel. As a presenter, I get most of my confidence from interacting with the audience. Without their positive feedback, my spirits can quickly spiral downwards.
Silently intoning the mantra, “This, too, shall pass.”, I rattled through the rest of the skeleton script, sans interactive hooks, and made it to the end of the show.
As I was packing up despondently, the teacher who had booked me returned to the hall. I could barely look her in the eye, but I mumbled some apology. Her reply floored me.
“Oh no, they absolutely loved it! They were raving about it all the way down the corridor. They always behave like that whenever a speaker visits.”
She sounded genuine, but I was incredulous. I needed more data. Confirmation arrived when I was chatting to the four students who had been assigned to help me carry equipment out to my van. The consensus was that the show had gone down extremely well.
I’m sharing this near-death tale partly for therapy, but also to make the point — despite everything I’ve written in this section, sometimes you just don’t know what your audience is really thinking.
Audience response should not be your only guide
Most of the techniques in this book are about how you can orchestrate the attention and emotions of your audience, to achieve your educational objectives. Framing the audience as your directors seems like a contradiction of this approach, but the relationship between you and your audience is an extremely subtle, two-way process.
As the presenter, you’re responsible for steering the optimum path through this interactive presentation so that everyone has the best possible experience. This means even though the reaction of the group will influence precisely how you deliver the content, you’re still in charge of the big decisions. Let your passion for your subject and your purpose guide you on these choices.
Another limitation with specific audience feedback is that we can’t reasonably expect them to fix our presentations. Professionals in every creative industry have observed that their audiences have an uncanny knack of collectively realising if something is not working. But despite these insights, they caution that the well-intentioned explanations or solutions of the public should never be trusted. It’s up to you to use your experience to diagnose why the audience didn’t react as expected and how to fix this problem.
“Giving people what they want is fundamentally and disastrously wrong. The people don’t know what they want…[Give] them something better.”
Samuel Rothafel (theatre promoter)
In light of the impact of Covid-19 on the informal education sector, I’ve made the text of this book available online until the end of October 2021. You can purchase print or ebook versions at HookYourAudienceBook.com