How to be an Active Audience Member

By Morgan McCullough

In this blog series, we have covered writing for the ear, establishing credibility, and overcoming stage fright in public speaking scenarios. What we haven’t yet talked about is the other piece of the presentation puzzle: the audience. The audience is a major factor in a speaker’s success. Therefore, it’s important to be the audience member you desire when speaking.

According to professional public speaking coach Dr. Craig Engstrom, “In most public speaking scenarios, the audience is on your side. They want to see you succeed.” This is true in PR settings, where the audience is likely filled with your coworkers, peers, and superiors who are all routing for you. Of course, you should practice as we noted early. Nobody likes the uncomfortable feeling of a public speaker failing. If you mess up, stutter, or become embarrassed during your speech, the audience will likely feel embarrassed too. So remember the number one rule: practice! If you’re in the audience, root for the speaker’s success. So how can you be a good audience member?

In this article, I share some of Dr. Engstrom’s notes on how to be an admirable audience member. Keep in mind the advice below assumes a professional and productive speaking context, not a political or contentious one.

Go in with an Open Mind

Just as you would if you were the presenter, always show up ready and on time. Come to the presentation willing to learn something new and challenge your beliefs. Recognize and bracket bias that could prevent you from listening to the speaker’s message. Don’t just accept a speaker’s point of view to which you agree or reject a point of view to which you disagree. Avoid the temptations of selective bias.

Turn Off Your Damn Phone

Don’t be that rude, annoying person whose phone rings during the performance. Be respectful by giving the speaker your full attention. Turn off distracting devices, including laptops unless you need it. Silence your phone and don’t type like a woodpecker. These distractions may interrupt the speaker and will certainly annoy other members of the audience.

Actively Listen

Demonstrate active listening through nonverbal responses with affirming body language (e.g., smiling, nodding your head, and eye contact). You can also aurally participate with laughter, exclamation, and applause. Don’t look bored by slouching in your chair or presenting a blank expression—the speaker will notice and may get uncomfortable. Your goal should be to make the speaker feel comfortable.

Listen to Understand

Don’t just show up and listen, be fully present. Sometimes, people will check out right away if the speaker has a quality that turns them off, such as a thick, hard-to-understand accent. The speaker likely worked hard to deliver a notable presentation, so you owe them your attention in return. Put yourself in the speaker’s shoes, show interest, and do not get distracted by petty mistakes like counting “ums.”

Don’t Count the ‘Ums’

If you exit the presentation knowing that the speaker said “um” 24 times, chances are you’re a terrible listener. “When you’re counting the ‘ums’ or other ticks, you’re not listening to the message. What is more, this feedback doesn’t help the speaker, it just demoralizes them,” says Dr. Engstrom. “It also says you’re a jerk.”

Final Thoughts

Speakers hopefully have worked hard to prepare a quality speech, so invest in them as a member of the audience. Use the tactics mentioned above to stay engaged with your eyes and ears to fully absorb what the speaker has to say.

By doing the above and more, you will be an active and admired audience participant. You might even win some karma points for your next big presentation!

Photo Credit: John-Mark Smith

Morgan McCullough is a Senior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is majoring in Public Relations and Journalism and is currently interning for Communication@Work LLC. This is fourth and final article from Morgan’s conversation with Craig Engstrom.Connect with Morgan on LinkedIn.

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