Speak ‘with’ your audience, not ‘to’ them

When I first started speaking in public, I would stand up, spout out my speech quickly and sit down. The audience would politely clap, and then quickly forget anything that I had said.

For a while, I figured that this was what public speaking was all about: you stood, talked to the audience, and they listened.

I could not have been more wrong.

One day, I started thinking about my one-to-one conversations with people. Typically, I would say something, and then the other person would respond back. It wasn’t always a response in words, sometimes it was a nod, solid eye contact or a laugh. The difference was that there was a loop of conversation, from me to them, and back to me.

It made me think about my experience as a public speaker. For some reason, whenever I told a joke, people would laugh. Whenever I said something important, people would nod and sometimes say ‘yes’.

I realized that for a few years, I had been making a big mistake in my speaking: I had been talking to the audience, rather than with them.

Public speaking is really just an enlarged one-to-one conversation. You don’t spend the whole time talking to the audience, rather you share something with them, and they respond back to you.

Think of a church where the congregation shares their feelings as they preacher speaks. This is an example of this conversation loop that a skilled speaker can create with his or her audience.

Your audience may not be quite as verbal as a church congregation, yet there are many more subtle ways that the audience ‘talks back’ to you:

1) They nod, give eye contact and shift their body forward

This is a great way to know somebody is engaged. If they are leaning in, looking at you and making gestures with their head, then you can be pretty sure they are with you.

2) They laugh out loud

People often laugh because something is funny, and sometimes they do it because you have said something very true or honest. Not all laughter is about humor. Some of it is nervous laughter or laughter of recognition.

 All laughter is the audience speaking with you.

3) They make noises

An engaged audience will grunt or say small words like ‘yes’ or ‘thats’ true’. This is how you know you really are impacting, as they are unable to contain sharing their inner thoughts with you.

4) They make a verbal comment

Sometimes you will trigger a thought or emotion in a person’s mind, and they will feel compelled to share them with you in front of the room. Some speakers see this as another person trying to steal the limelight. I see it as a sign they want to engage with you. Audience comments make the room more conducive to your message, as long as you handle the comment well.

Remember: nobody sitting in the audience thinks of himself or herself as ‘the audience’. They think of themselves as an individual. You are talking with them, and they are talking with you.

The most important lesson here is to think of your speaking as an enlarged one-to-one conversation. Visualize that you are in a continual conversation loop.

I guarantee it will make you much more engaging, and also more confident as a speaker.

Now, can I get an amen on that?

Daniel Midson-Short


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