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Mixed Signals from Your Audience


This is our dog Dude.  He’s a six-month-old Humane Society rescue – part yellow lab, part golden retriever, and maybe a little something else that accounts for the freckles on his nose.  One thing Dude and I have in common is we’re both light sleepers.  He can be snoozing on the other side of the room, but when he hears me stand up, he opens his eyes and lifts his head.

A few weeks ago, I was practicing a speech in my office.  I was standing up, speaking the words aloud, and clicking through my slides.  At first, Dude thought it must be time to play.  He brought me one of his squeaky toys and pressed it against my leg.  I politely explained that it wasn’t playtime, it was time for mommy to practice.  (OK, I actually said, “No, Dude!” and I wasn’t that polite.)  After a few minutes of standing there, waiting to see if I’d change my mind, Dude climbed up on one of the sofas and fell asleep.  Mr. Light Sleeper Dog fell asleep during my speech.  Not exactly the morale booster I’d hoped for!   I snapped this picture after I was done practicing.  He woke up to have his picture taken.

Maybe Dude was bored with my speech or punishing me for not playing fetch with his squeaky toy.  Luckily for us, our audiences usually don’t curl up in their seat and start sleeping during a presentation.  But can we read their body language and learn what they’re thinking?

Read Your Audience

One of the most important things that a presenter can do in the midst of a presentation is to read the audience.  Any experienced presenter will tell you he watches for cues in the body language of his audience to let him know if his content is connecting or not.  Lots of yawning and glazed over looks, the audience isn’t connected.  Lots of smiles and nodding heads, he’s on the right path.  The presenter can keep going or adjust based on the signals he receives. But what if the body language is sending mixed signals?

Mixed Signals on Smart Phones

A few years ago, I coined the term the N & N Response when it came to audiences.  I figured if the Nodding their heads and taking Notes, then they’re tapped into my message.  But with smart phones, laptops and tablets in the laps of audience members, we can’t always tell if our message is connecting or if the audience members are just seeking something else to do with their time while stuck in our presentation.  What’s a presenter to do?

Don’t Assume the Worst

Imagine yourself delivering a presentation.  You’ve researched your audience.  You’re talking about a subject that is relevant to them.  You’re using stories and you can tell you’re connecting with the audience.  And then you spot her.

She’s off to your right.  Her arms are crossed.  Her face scrunched in a scowl.  Everyone else seems to be tuned in but she seems — what… angry? … offended? … bored?  You keep giving it your all but you find it distracting that one person is clearly not engaged with your presentations.  It’s human nature to obsess over the one wrong thing.  Even though that one person doesn’t seem connected, you really don’t know what’s going on in her head.

Every professional speaker I know has had the same experience described above – AND – had at least one person who they thought was hating their speech come up to them afterwards and say how good the speech was, how great the content was, how meaningful and helpful the information was.  That’s not to say at every arms-folded audience member has complemented the speaker.  But we’ve all had one person who we totally misread their level of involvement in the presentation.

The same can be true of your wireless-devise-using audience members.  I’ve gotten so that I take notes via Twitter and I know others who are doing the same thing.  In fact, if you don’t see me tweeting during a presentation, it’s probably because I’m not finding anything interesting enough to tweet about.

Consider this.

If your audience member that you thought was taking notes was actually making a list of items he needed to pick up at the store on the way home, you wouldn’t know it, but would blissfully go along thinking that he was hanging on your every word.  Don’t assume that just because their eyes aren’t glued to you that the audience members aren’t engaged.  Just like with the woman with the folded arms being misread, you could be misreading the person on her smart phone.  And you might be pleasantly surprised about what she tweets!

What do you think?

Do you agree?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below!  Dude & I thank you!