How to be a Good Audience Member

As speakers we work hard researching how to better communicate and connect with our audiences. We spend hours tweaking a twenty minute talk, figuring out who might be in attendance and practicing our speeches so that we give the audience the best experience possible. Wouldn’t it be nice if our audiences took the time to make sure they get the most out of our talk?

The problem is that we’re never taught how to be good audience members – it’s just always been expected of us. The closest thing I had to an education on being a respectful audience member happened when I was in middle school. A guy came in to talk about Halley’s Comet (it was visible in the night sky at the time) and bumbled through his presentation, dropped props and seemed unprepared. Given that his audience was a bunch of kids from 11-14 in age, he was not treated with respect. The principal ended up make the entire school (about 250 kids) stay after until everyone sat quietly for ten minutes.

Of course, in the real world, we don’t have people that tell the audience how to behave and there hasn’t been any rules published as to how to be a good audience member – until now. So since we should treat others the way we want to be treated, here are some tips for being a good audience member:

1. Don’t be a distraction to the speaker.

Turn off your cell phone (or put it on vibrate mode), avoid having your own dialog with the person next to you and try to not to eat loud snacks while the speaker is speaking. Speaking to groups is stressful enough with all the work that goes into a talk before the speaker takes the stage so try to respect those efforts.

2. Pay attention to the speaker.

Even if it’s not a topic you’re interested in, the speaker is up there talking in an effort to help you learn. I’ve sat through numerous talks on subjects that I was disinterested in yet actually walked away with nuggets of information that I could eventually use. Keep in mind that many speakers have a wide area of expertise, so they might talk about subjects that you might be interested in within their speech.

At very least, avoid looking at your watch and around the room while the speaker is speaking. And if you’re sitting at a round table where your back is towards the speaker, turn you seat around to face the front of the room.

3. Ask appropriate questions.

It’s okay to ask for clarification on something a speaker says – chances are other audience members are wondering the same thing. It’s also good to ask a speaker to elaborate more on a point if you’d like to learn more or to explain your situation and ask how you could apply something the speaker talked about to it.

It’s not appropriate to ask questions that you know might embarrass the speaker. Yes the speaker should be knowledgeable in the subject he or she is speaking about, but you should never use a Q&A session to attack them personally. If you disagree with something they said, it’s fine to ask them why they feel the way they, just don’t ask in a condescending way.

Also, don’t ask questions if you already know the answer. Other audience members despise the know-it-all in the audience (which is like a mild heckler)

4. Provide helpful feedback.

One of the worst things you can do to a speaker is telling them they did a very good job when they didn’t. You don’t have to be mean with your comments but you shouldn’t lie and say they did a good job when they didn’t. On the flip side, if they did a good job say so.

5. Clap before and after the speech.

In my speaking seminars, the first thing I teach attendees is how to be a supportive audience member. Since most of the people in the room fear speaking to begin with, it’s especially important to follow what I call the double clap.

I have people clap for the speaker when they come up to talk because that provides encourage for them. Let’s face it, it’s a lot more encouraging to get up to speak when the audience is clapping for you than it is when they’re sitting in silence.

After the speaker is done, I have the group clap again for appreciation. Yes, they’re told to clap at the end, but as a speaker, it doesn’t matter. It feels good and makes you feel like a success.

Some people ask about the standing ovation. I typically only stand if I think someone did a superb job with their talk. The only exception is when the speaker has contributed to the greater good where I admire their courage, dedication, etc…, but they usually give fantastic talks so I usually stand for them anyway. Sometimes I’m the only one standing, sometimes I’m the only one sitting. Some people feel pressured to get up when others do, but unless you feel that the talk was good, you reserve the right to remain seated if you so wish. The only thing you’ll want to consider is if the speech is being videotaped – you may not want to be only one standing or sitting.

So these are some basic tips on how to be a better audience member. Keep them in mind the next time you’re invited to watch someone talk.

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