Public Speaking Skills — Reacting To Your Audience

When you speak or perform, some audiences will seem better than others.  And although the quality of audiences do vary, in reality it’s not always the audience.  YOU will be better on some days than on other days…causing the audiences to react differently.  And apart from the qualities of the audience and your personal energy level, sometimes the difference is how you REACT to the audience.  Your reaction affects your performance.  Your performance then affects their reaction to you.  As a result of bad assumptions on your part, you could be setting up a negative cycle for a very bad performance.

My improv troupes have performed many public shows during the past ten years.  Three of them stand out as not being tops.  Normally we would measure the quality of a performance by the audience reaction.  When you leave the performance disappointed with the response of the audience, you feel that the program was a failure.

Most of the comments in this article are based on the assumption that most of your programs are great, and that occasionally you have one of those programs that just don’t measure up.  If nearly everytime you speak or perform you find yourself in front of a bad audience…the problem is probably NOT the audience.  Tape your program and spend time critiquing your performance, your content and your delivery.

The first show was for a group of senior citizens.  An improv show needs audience participation to be a success.  Normally the troupe asks for suggestions from the audience for scene starters.  “Give me the name of a place you would never go on vacation.”  Most audiences would give suggestions like…a dumpster, the police department, or the bottom of the ocean.  When we would ask the seniors for a suggestion…blank stares.  Silence.  In the end, the troupe ended up shouting out the suggestions for the players on stage.

The next show was for a group of professionals attending a convention.  The energy in the room wasn’t what we were used to.  Maybe it was the long day, the wonderful dinner, and a pillow calling them for a good night’s sleep.

The most recent show was for a group of young people.  The feeling of the troupe was that many of the kids were not paying attention to the show.  The troupe wrapped up the show feeling less than thrilled.

Here’s the most interesting part.  After each of the shows we heard great comments from individuals in all three audiences about how much they enjoyed the shows!  The vast majority of the audience loved the performances. 

So what was happening to cause us to feel that the audience reaction was substandard? 

1.  Selective memory.  There is a tendency to remember the bad more than the good.  If a show has 14 good scenes and two weak ones, we often remember the two that didn’t measure up.  If you get 100 critiques from a talk and three of them are negative, sometimes they have the biggest impact on us.  It’s helpful to be able to put the negative feedback into the proper perspective and not let them cloud the entire experience.  In all three of the improv shows, most of the scenes did receive a good response.

2.  Expectations.  We are often prisoners of the past.  Based on previous experience we come to assume that future experiences should be the same.  Our improv troupes have been spoiled by having a terrific, loyal fan base.  We perform our regular monthly shows in front of a mostly adoring audience.  They are people to love improv, love us, and come back again and again.  Then we perform for an outside group!  It’s usually at an event where many of the people did not come expecting to see improv.  In fact many probably didn’t know what improv was.  So while they’re watching the show, they’re trying to figure out what’s going on and whether or not they like it.  And we, the players, are wondering why they aren’t responding like our family, friends and fans did.  Likewise, giving a speech to a local civic club audience isn’t the same as giving one to your home Toastmasters Club.  All audiences are not the same.  They express their enjoyment in different ways.

3.  Benefit of the doubt.  Our troupes came to the conclusion that since the audience wasn’t laughing (or wasn’t paying attention), that they weren’t having a good time.  Although that is always a possibility, my past experience has taught me that the opposite is usually the truth.  When someone is just sitting there looking at you, not laughing, not applauding…assume they’re having a good time.  Even if it’s not the case, at least the thought will energize you and make your performance more engaging and connected with the audience members who are having a good time.

4.  Go to school.  Make each experience, both the good and bad ones, a learning event.  The goal of growing as a result of each program or talk makes each event a rewarding experience.  We learned something in each of our three improv shows about game and scene selection, length of program, pacing, planning and rehearsal that will help us to do a better job next time.  This focus helps make the whole event a positive experience.