TalkTips: The role of the audience

As Toastmasters, we are familiar with the various roles required to conduct a successful meeting, roles like Timer, Evaluator and Toastmaster of the Day.   We are proud to step up, often on short notice, to fill a meeting role. There is, however, one role that is often overlooked in preparing for the meeting. This is the role of the audience.

You have a role even when you don’t think you do. Keep in mind that speaking is an act of communication and communication is a two-way activity. I’ve written elsewhere comparing speaking to tossing a ball about.  In this metaphor, the ball is the message that is being passed on from the speaker to the listener.  It takes at least two to communicate. If there is only one, the messages bounces off into the darkness without ever being received. Your role in every Toastmaster meeting is to be a receptive audience.

This is a critical role.  A seasoned speaker will monitor his audience, looking for evidence of how well his message is being received. He will then adjust his delivery accordingly. When faced with a disinterested, unresponsive audience, a speaker is disadvantaged, careening about like an out of control robot crashing into walls as he tries ever more extreme measures to establish some rapport with the audience that can guide his performance.

Some of the worst speaking experiences I’ve ever had were before unresponsive, dead audiences. I remember vividly speaking at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The Fall meeting is the biggest event of the year for geophysical scientists, which includes everyone from geologists and oceanographers to atmospheric and space scientists.  It is also the last meeting, scheduled in December of each year. I had the misfortune one year of being scheduled to speak at the end of the last day of the meeting. That’s right, I was the last speaker on the last day of a week-long meeting which was also the last meeting of the year. Everyone in that room, speaker included, was exhausted. Our brains had stopped working somewhere between six and thirty-six hours earlier. I could have performed a full strip-tease and no one would have noticed, speaker included.

I’ll say it again: a speaker is always trying to connect with his audience.  He requires feedback from the audience to successfully deliver his message. That is your role. A successful talk is as much the responsibility of the audience as it is that of the speaker.

Now that you know you have a role as an audience member, give some thought to the specific roles you need to fill.  First, create a friendly, receptive atmosphere for the speaker.  Establish and maintain eye contact with the speaker.  Smile and nod to show you are following the argument.  Laugh when appropriate.  Applaud with enthusiasm and otherwise show appreciation at the end of the talk.

Next, make a point of paying attention to the presentation and offering no distractions to the other audience members or the speaker.  This means PUT YOUR FREAKING PHONES AWAY!  (If you can’t wait five to seven minutes to check the latest Twitter update you suffer from a psychological addiction and should seek counseling instead of interfering with a Toastmaster meeting.)

Also, be careful if at a meeting where a meal is served.  Don’t talk among yourselves (as in “Please pass the salt”), pour drinks with the attendant sound of ice clinking, or otherwise fuss with your food.  I don’t like dinner meetings because of the distractions throughout the room.  Even with food before me, I make a point of sitting with my hands in my lap until the speech is finished.  It’s rude to do otherwise.

Also, don’t take notes or otherwise doodle unless you are doing so as an evaluator.  In short, the speaker should receive your undivided attention throughout his presentation.

Finally, your job is not finished just because the speaker has concluded his talk and taken his seat.  Your last act as a Toastmaster audience member is to share your thoughts with the speaker.  Hopefully, you listened to the speech as an evaluator, even if that was not your role, and noted what worked and what didn’t work.  Write a personal note and share these points with the speaker and offer encouragement.  Later, follow up with an email elaborating on these points or including new thoughts that come to mind afterward.

These notes are more important than you may realize.  I still keep a small scrap of paper given me on my first night at a Toastmasters meeting.  It contained only one or two sentences, but it was encouraging and urged me to return.  That was the beginning of my Toastmasters journey.

In summary, remember that communication is a team effort.  Any speech will be a failure without a receptive audience to receive the message.  That is your role at every Toastmasters meeting.

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