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Watch the Audience


Techniques Public speaking > Speaking Tips > Watch the Audience

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You can get a lot of information about the audience when you are speaking by watching their body language. There are two things you can notice. First, watch for transitions when they shift from one position to another as you are speaking, usually connected with what you are saying. In this way they can signal such as interest, agreement, surprise, etc. (or not).

Also watch for state indicators that indicate more persistent moods and attitudes. Note how open they are to ideas from the beginning and as you progress. Watch for nodding and smiling as you present concepts, as opposed to frowning and appearing judgemental. Be more factual with closed audiences and exploratory when they seem open.

Watch for the dynamics of power and status. Does everyone act as equal or do some act as if they are in charge or more important? Watch for dominant, powerful and submissive body language and give due deference to group leaders. Notice if they seem to be looking down on you or up to you and respond accordingly.

Beware of audiences that give up and sit back. Watch for people leaning back, not giving eye contact, talking with one another and otherwise showing signs of disinterest. Try connecting with individuals and see if they respond. If significant parts of the audience disengage, you will need to do a recovery, perhaps even involving them in this question. 

If audiences are engaged, they may agree with you or may disagree, possibly very strongly. Watch for nodding or shaking of heads. You will find out more in question time. Engagement of any kind is better than disinterest and you can make good use of the energy.

Beyond engagement is the depth of commitment that the audience and individuals have, to the subject, to you and and to what you are saying. Watch for people leaning forward and moving in time with you. When they have this commitment you can say almost anything and they will agree. It is of course the right moment in which to pitch your key message.


I am doing a sales presentation and notice a few powerful individuals in the group. I put more focus on them although not forgetting others. As they warm to my message, I see increasing responsiveness and engagement as they appear more committed, I go for the close.


Whilst you have limited opportunity to listen to the audience, you can more than make up for this by watching them, assessing their body language and consequently making useful inferences about their general mood and more immediate feelings.

In any task we need feedback to know if we are doing it right, for example when picking up a cup of coffee, our eyes and touch sense tell us we have a good hold of it. In some tasks we do not know if we are successful until later, for example when developing or marketing a product we only know its success when the sales figures are known. It is easier in presentation as, like the coffee cup, you have an immediate source of feedback in front of you, although it is surprising how many speakers ignore this invaluable well of information.

A great speaker is like a Tai Chi or Aikido master, flowing in tune with the other party whilst effortlessly moving them to where they want them to go. The inner secret of this is sensitivity. If you can feel where people are and which way they are leaning, then you can gently shape them any way you wish.

See also

Using Body Language, Know Your Audience


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