When I mentor new professional speakers, I encourage them to become a master of reading a room, but not dependent on what they read. The art to develop → defuse mood-killing energy early, harness the good vibes & believe in your ability to reach the hardest-to-reach, as your impact will be the greatest to them.
Here are some common audience member types I’ve consistently encountered over the years …
Super-Fan: they smile and make eye contact from the start. They laugh and nod at all the right times. They feed you with strong supportive energy throughout the presentation. We love Super-Fans, especially if it’s the person who hired you, BUT … it’s easy to lose your read on the majority of the room by over-reading the most expressive audience members, especially the Super-Fans.
Don’t Want to Be Here: they are intently focused on their phone. Their body language offers that this is the LAST place they want to be. It’s easy to imagine them saying at the start of the day that they don’t need a team event or inspirational speaker to motivate them – they just need time to work instead of being at the event.
Paparazzi: they film it all and take photos of anything you show on the screen. They seem to always hold up their phone right at the transitional moment you struggled to memorize when rehearsing the talk. They capture the joke that barely got a chuckle. They livestream the moment at the beginning when you suddenly got cotton mouth and your voice cracked. You feel great when they capture a peak moment but your heart races when they catch you in a momentary speaker’s stumble.
Debater: they are primed and ready to debate you at every turn, not during the Q&A or break, but right in the middle of your talk. They raise their hand and ask why you didn’t use jazz music as an example instead of orchestral music. They ask a very specific question about their organization that you couldn’t possibly answer. Or they challenge you in an unexpected way that could easily throw you off balance.
Poker Face: they give nothing away, no laughs, no smiles, no frowny face, no signs. You have no idea if they are with you or against you, if you are reaching them or if they are counting the minutes until your talk ends.
How to respond to different types of audience members
So, what do you do with each type?
First, remember the experience you are there to provide is ultimately about them and not you. You are there to inspire, spark insights and help create connection (to paradigms, solutions, people, etc.). How you make that happen is part of the excitement of this business, but if you want to be invited back and referred for other engagements, your ability to connect and make it about THEM is what matters.
I go into each talk with the goal of reaching even the most challenging audience members and helping spark an insight that will help them in some way. My overarching assumption is that everyone there would benefit from some kind of support. While 99% of the content may not reach those “in resistance,” it just takes 1% to land and leave them with something they can use.
I often start talks by getting this out of the way first, by telling the audience that I’m there to spark insights, not to tell them what to do or have them agree with everything I say. I ask them to be open to having a moment of insight and to remembering that insight more in six months than they remember me as the speaker.
This approach creates a connection early and preemptively defuses some awkward moments. It also gives you as a speaker space to do your job without being overly concerned with what lands and when/how it lands.
I’ve been shocked at the end of some talks when the least expressive audience member approached me with feedback and a story that showed me they were MUCH more engaged and impacted than I imagined. This has happened so often that I now know this person is in every audience and usually in abundance.
Tips to help you in front of an audience:
- Be clear to yourself and the audience why you’re there
- Make reaching and supporting them more important than you and your story
- Feel all the positive energy in the room when it’s there, but don’t get attached to it
- If you’ve truly lost a room, go off-script, change course and save it
- If some audience members are throwing you off balance with their body language or challenging questions, remember 1 & 2, and serve them with all you’ve got.
You won’t always reach everyone in a room, but your ability to do the above things well will go a LONG way toward building a successful speaking business.