Public Speaking Success: The Power of Audience Reactions

Public SpeakingThe way the audience reacts can often make or break your presentation. I’ve seen dead audiences bring down great presenters and excited audiences make so-so speeches come alive. From my own personal experience as a speaker, I thrive off of audience energy – it’s like a natural high. There’s nothing like the feeling of an audience positively reacting to your speech.

I’ll never forget the first time I experienced this first hand. It was over ten years ago and I was in still in Grad School. My friend Raj and I were tasked with giving a presentation on creating an interactive website (at the time, interactivity on the web was still in its infancy). We were the last group to give a presentation that night. The class, filled primarily with people who had already put in a full day at the office, was supposed to run from 7:30 PM until 9:50 PM and Raj and I didn’t start our talk until 10:10!

To provide a bit more background on the talk, Raj and I had a project that was technically impressive but neither one of us were gifted artists. Every other group had a beautifully designed web page where Raj and I had nothing but text and input boxes. However, our pizzazz was in our presentation.

Our first PowerPoint slide had our names, the title of our presentation and … a picture of Beavis and Butt-head (a popular cartoon that ran on MTV in the mid-90’s). This effectively woke up the audience and got them involved: the question “which one of you is butt-head?” was immediately asked.

The fact that the audience suddenly woke up – they had been asleep for the prior three presentations –energized us and we each delivered a performance of a lifetime with our presentation. It energized us and helped us present better and with more confidence. It picked us up – we were a bit down when we realized that we were the only ones with a dull looking website. So we used this energy and we had them laughing, engaged and entertained.

There are several ways to make a speech more interesting and relevant to the audience. Getting that initial positive reaction can result in a positive cycle where the speaker and the audience are feeding off the positive energy of each other and everyone benefits.

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11 thoughts on “Public Speaking Success: The Power of Audience Reactions

  1. nanucbe

    It is great to receive an invitation to submit blogs. As I told you I am nither a speaker nor a triner. Your comments encouraged me write the second blog. I write impromptu. There is no design in my writing. Just like that I sit for an hour typing out what I feel and publish them in my blogspot. I thank you for the encouragement given. I have not planned any of those blogs. Now I may continue on other aspects too. I have a few other things, like topics on management science, non-profit, and medicine among other things to write.Thanks and wish to get the same encouragement from you in future too.
    regards,
    narayanan krishnaswami

  2. Terry Gault

    Thanks for the post James.

    Every presenter must ask themselves why they make presentations? Is it your idea? An assignment? A necessity? Part of your job? Of course there must be a reason for each presentation: to sell…to educate…to motivate. But to what kind of audience? To your boss? To an audience of a thousand people? Or maybe to one very important client? (But aren’t all clients important?) How many of us would choose to stand up in front of people without a reason? Well, some might, but the majority of us would not. Speaking in public is listed as one of the top ten fears of most people. So not only is making a presentation potentially fearful, but once past that, you have to make it a good one for effective results. And a good presentation cannot be considered good if the audience is bored. So how do we get their attention? How do we wake them up?

    The people seated in front of you may be mentally slumbering in their chair before you’re halfway through. If they think they know or even guess what you’re about to say, they lose focus, skip ahead, plan their next client meeting or what they’re having for lunch. All of our minds in this fast-moving contemporary society of ours are full of meaningless and meaningful data. Your job is to get and to keep the audience’s attention. To wake them up. Here are some specific ways to do this as well as a few creative ideas.

    MOVEMENT

    Take advantage of one of our natural human inclinations: the DNA code that forces humans to pay heed to any sharp movement within our field of vision. Imagine a grazing zebra when it spots the buff-colored mane of a lion. Its sympathetic nervous system kicks in and the zebra starts to run. The primitive species that didn’t pay attention are gone for good. This is not to suggest startling your audience into stampeding out of the room. No, just activate that DNA code with some sort of movement. You’re not a statue; don’t stand as still as one.

    Explore the full range of physical expressiveness. Move your entire body from one place to another, across the stage, standing up, bending over, spinning around. Gesture with your hands, even feet? while remaining in the same location. Increase the speed, range and variety of your movement; it creates an impression of vigor and excitement.

    GESTURE

    Gestures, a form of body language or non-verbal communication, are a major component of human life. In some societies, gestures are used to initiate a mating ritual. Religious and spiritual gestures are also commonly known, such as the Catholic sign of the cross. We communicate daily with all kinds of gestures; whether hailing a taxi or blowing a kiss, the universal meaning of many gestures is understood quickly and accurately. As gestures are so easily understood, in many cultures, what we do with our hands may even replace words.

    Our instinct tells us to trust body language more than words. Early on we learn that body language often communicates more honestly than words. Having a serious conversation with someone whose arms are crossed or whose eyes do not contact yours might leave room for doubt about the speaker’s sincerity. If you as a speaker do not match your body language with your words, how much will the audience pay attention and/or believe what you’re saying?

    We’ve all had this experience: You’re talking to someone about an important topic. How does their message and/or conversation come across if during an important point, they look away or yawn. What if they start shaking? Blush? Keep blinking as if to keep themselves awake?

    As a speaker, it is imperative to match your words with your body. Lean forward to be sincere. Raise your arms to express joy. Pound on the podium to make your point. Follow your own instincts and do what expresses your message the most.

    STILLNESS

    Often the most important movements can be its complete absence. Calm, powerful stillness. Unfocused movement such as rocking back and forth, shifting, repetitive hand gestures or finger fidgeting decreases your power and credibility and can distract the audience from your message. When you’re not making a gesture or movement that supports your presentation, choose stillness. When you can stand still in silence, with self-confidence, the audience interprets this as power and control. Just don’t do it for very long.

    DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT

    -Catch the audience off guard by inviting them to participate.

    -Employ a dramatic gesture at an unexpected moment.

    -Make a loud sound by clapping, stomping a foot, slapping the table or making an unexpected sound with your voice.

    -Tease the audience.

    -Reveal an interesting prop or use an object in the room in an unusual way.

    -Stop and be silent.

  3. James Post author

    Wow, Terry – that is some great advice in your comments. Would you be interested in guest blogging on here?

    Thanks,

    James

  4. Wenbin

    Hello, was digging my recent post about “Public Speaking with an Audience Centered Approach” from my blog when i discovered this site.

    Wow, i must say. This site is really something!

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