When I was in third grade, I took third place in the school spelling bee, behind a fifth grader and a sixth grader. I was wearing my favorite pink dress with buttons down the front, and my groovy white go-go boots. I felt fabulous. I loved spelling, was good at it, and was a little bit competitive. When I misspelled my final word, I was a little shocked; the audience roared with applause.
I didn't realize what an accomplishment it was to come in third in the whole school at the age of eight. What I heard in that applause was an audience who was glad to see me eliminated! I thought they must be applauding so loudly because they didn't want me to win. I cried, of course, and had to be comforted by my parents. Somewhere along the way, it was explained to me that I got so much applause because the audience was acknowledging my achievement.
Have you ever misinterpreted your audience's responses to your presentation? Do you see someone typing on her phone and assume she's bored? Do you see someone with crossed arms and a scowl and assume he's angry? If no one raises hands when you ask a question, do you assume they're not engaged?
It's not always easy to read an audience, especially when there's a lack of response. If your presentation is early, they might be sleep-deprived. If it's late in the morning, they might be hungry. They might be distracted by personal issues, a need for a cigarette, an overactive bladder and a million other things.
It's important not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions. But it is important to build rapport with the audience and find out what's going on with them. If a couple of people seem disconnected, you might be reading them incorrectly. Or you might be reading them correctly, but be unable to reach them.
If the whole group is disconnected, however, there's something you could be doing better. Why not ask them? Ask if there's a particular direction they would like to go. Ask if there's something they'd like to know about that you haven't touched on. Ask them to share their most pressing concerns.
Maybe they've been sitting too long and need to stretch their legs. Maybe you've been talking too long and they need an auditory break. Ask a question and have them discuss with their neighbor, or have them break into groups with a piece of flip chart paper and ask them to make a list or solve a problem. Invite them to stand up, stretch, and introduce themselves to the person next to them.
There are lots of ways to bring an audience back from la-la land. Rather than jumping to conclusions or misinterpreting their body language, ask them what they care about and shake things up a bit. They'll come back.