Isaac Castillo is leading a 3-part series about public speaking skills and nonverbal communication for evaluators. Isaac has taught public speaking and debate at the high school and college levels, and he was an All American debater before entering the evaluation field. I hope you enjoy reading his third post.  — Ann Emery


Part 3: Is Your Audience on Facebook?

When people ask me what is going on in my mind when I give a presentation, I answer them by saying: “I’m reading the audience.”  But what exactly does that mean? 

In presentations, nonverbal communication works both ways.  In previous posts I have discussed how your movement and gestures as a presenter can further emphasize your presentation.  However, your audience is using nonverbal communication as well – and learning how to interpret these cues can help you turn around a struggling presentation or allow you to make your content truly inspirational. 

As a presenter, you not only have to present your material, you have to observe audience members to see if they are paying attention to you or if they are updating their Facebook status.  But how exactly do you do this?  

I look for people’s behaviors.  Engaged audience members will look right at you, will shake their heads in agreement or disagreement, will take notes, or ask questions.   Audience members who have lost interest will be taking notes or working on devices but never look up or at you, will be holding side conversations, or will yawn or look around the room continuously.   All of these are signs that you have lost some members of the audience and that you will soon lose many more.  This is the time to change things up and re-engage people.

So how do you re-engage your audience when you have lost them?  That is where you can use some nonverbal techniques such as movement around the room, verbal techniques such as changing the volume of your voice, or even changing the flow of your presentation.   Telling a personal story or giving a real world example also frequently gets people re-engaged.  

The key thing to remember once you have lost your audience is that you need to do SOMETHING different.  That something different may be something as simple as moving around the room or telling a new story, or it may be more drastic like taking an unplanned break.  Don’t be afraid of these situations – like a good evaluator, just keep in mind that sometimes an approach will fail and you will need to implement a different presentation approach to improve the outcome for the audience! 

Additional Resources:

  • More tips on specific things you should be looking for when reading your audience: Supercompetent Speaking: Reading Your Audience
  • Why should you care about reading your audience? 4 Geek Excuses for Bad Presentations
  • You have lost your audience, now what? What to do when you’re losing your audience

Tips for Beginners:   See eye to eye.  Making eye contact, even only briefly, is important.  It provides you with the opportunity to make a connection with an audience member, and it holds their attention.  Try to make yourself switch eye contact with a different audience member every minute of your presentation.

Tips for Veterans:   Improve your ability to read the audience quickly.  Try this little exercise (you’ll need help from 1 or 2 people to act as an audience).  Give a practice presentation, and have your helpers sit in different parts of the room.  At regular intervals (no more than 1 minute, no less than 15 seconds) the helpers should hold up SIMPLE math problems (1+1= ; 5-3= ; 2×3= ; etc.) in the audience, and you should be able to read them, and answer them (aloud or in your head) while still giving your presentation.  This will train your brain and your eyes to be looking for cues from the audience, interpreting them, and doing something about them during the course of your presentation.

Tips for Experts:   Engage the daydreamer.  Nothing brings someone’s attention to you like actually directly engaging them in your presentation.   When I see an audience member losing focus or working on something else, I often directly engage them in one of several ways.  I may ask them a question or ask them to provide an example.  I stand or sit down next to them and tell them one of my stories or examples directly.  These approaches get daydreamers to re-focus and provide a change of pace for the rest of the audience.

–Isaac Castillo, @isaac_outcomes


Related Posts from Isaac:

  • Part 1: Getting Handy in Your Presentation
  • Part 2: Movement as Speech
  • The Volume of Your Presentation
  • The Best Presenters Focus on their Audience