Supercompetent Speaking: Reading Your Audience

To be relevant as a speaker, watch your audience carefully, and listen closely—so you can help them do so.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

A good speech adapts to meet an audience’s needs. Good speakers maintain awareness of the audience throughout the entire presentation and make adjustments as necessary. How do you know if your audience is “with” you? What is your audience thinking and feeling? How do you read them? This doesn’t require telepathy, just a type of sensory intelligence derived from careful attention and experience.

Your audience members will send you plenty of clues (both subtle and obvious) when their attention starts to wander, so listen and observe their behavior carefully. Take their collective pulse every few minutes; at the very least, survey the room after every major point. Stay attuned to body language, facial expression, extraneous sounds—and too much silence. The better you can read their cues and prompt them to stay engaged, the greater the likelihood you’ll accomplish your mission.

People in tune with your message tend to:

  • Nod
  • Smile
  • Lean toward you
  • Take notes
  • Make eye contact
  • Look serious or intent
  • Laugh at your jokes and stories
  • Ask relevant questions

Disengaged listeners often:

  • Close their eyes
  • Nod off
  • Yawn
  • Zone out
  • Lean away
  • Fidget
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Look around
  • Play with smartphones or handhelds
  • Doodle
  • Have side conversations
  • Shuffle papers
  • Check watches
  • Cross their arms
  • Show no expression
  • Ask hostile questions
  • Leave the room

Now, some of these clues (e.g., arm-crossing, doodling, or lack of expression) don’t necessarily indicate disengagement; some people just act that way when focusing. Similarly, watch checking may simply mean you’re nearing the end of your allotted time. However, if you see more than a few of these cues expressed, take them seriously and adjust your presentation accordingly.

To re-engage your listeners and command their attention, shake things up a bit! Depending on the circumstances, you may need to:

  • Move a little closer to them
  • Talk a bit louder
  • Be more engaging and passionate
  • Ask for questions
  • Push harder on your points
  • Ease off a little
  • Get them involved in a group activity
  • Tell a relevant personal story or anecdote
  • Inject some humor into your presentation
  • Ask for input or best practices on a particular point
  • Ask the audience if what you’re saying resonates with them

To be relevant as a speaker, watch your audience carefully, and listen closely—so you can help themdo so. Prepare carefully for the event; make sure you’ve done your homework and understand who your listeners are and what they want. Then present a dynamic speech, always prepared to adjust your presentation on a moment’s notice based on their cues.

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.