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Adapting to the Audience

This paper discusses ways in which a speaker can give a successful presentation, and what to do in the case of an audience that reacts unexpectedly.

I Introduction

Any successful speaker, presenter or actor must be able to engage his audience within a few moments of opening his talk or performance. People are busy, and their attention is easily distracted if they don’t immediately perceive that the message being delivered is of interest to them.

This paper explores ways of judging the situation and engaging the audience.

II Discussion

I believe the realm of the theatre is probably outside the scope of this paper since theatregoers are prepared to “give up” several hours of their time to enjoy a play. Then too, the actor is portraying a character, and if the play is familiar, the audience already knows who that character is. The actor needn’t try to explain the situation, but he does have the difficult job of bringing it to life in a believable way.

Let’s instead consider how the average person can adapt to a situation in which he has an audience. This might be anything from delivering a speech at a company awards banquet, to conducting a training session, to presenting a formal report at a stockholders’ meeting.

Of course, we will presuppose that the speaker already has his material and has rehearsed it. If it’s a report, he is familiar with facts and figures so that he can discuss them from memory if need be. If she’s conducting a training class, she knows her topic well enough to give information to her students if something were to happen to her material.

If she’s giving a speech, she has enough of it memorized so that she can deliver it without referring too often to her notes—a habit that is annoying leads to the stilted delivery we’ve all heard and robs the occasion of spontaneity. In other words, a speaker is always, always prepared.

Although few of us are ever simply thrown into a situation where we have to make an impromptu speech, many people, even with adequate preparation time, still fail to deliver an interesting, moving, funny, informative, or appropriate talk. Often—and fatally—they open with some sort of joke, which is often in poor taste and may fall flat. A bad start will make the speech seem interminable to the speaker, and the audience will be put off from the beginning.

Toastmasters has a website that is very helpful for those who find themselves before an audience. They list ten “tips” for a successful presentation, one of which we’ve already discussed, namely, know your material. The others are as follows: First, know the room. The key to a good presentation is for the speaker to be comfortable and part of that is knowing what the room looks like (do you have to pull the blinds?); how well the audio/visual equipment works and trying out the microphone (if you’re using one) so there are no last-minute surprises with the sound.

Second, know the audience. This is at the heart of the paper, which deals with adapting to the audience and the situation. Unless you have been asked to deliver a paper to a bunch of strangers on three minutes’ notice, you know who’s in your audience. Is it a liberal bunch of college professors? A conservative Rotary luncheon? A women’s rights group? If so, you have some idea of what their issues are, and what you should avoid and what is appropriate.

If, however, begin giving a presentation you think is tailored to the group, and start getting signals that this is all wrong, then you must adapt. Study body language: arms folded across the chest means they don’t want to hear you and are blocking you out.

I’d conclude that part of the remarks immediately and move to your next subject, watching them to see how they react. If they smile and relax, you should feel confident that you’re welcome to continue the rest of your talk. If they remain unresponsive, you might want to make your remarks more general until they feel less threatened. Toastmasters says, though, “don’t apologize.” If something goes wrong, it’s better not to mention it to call attention to it. (“10 Tips,” PG).

You might also visualize yourself giving the presentation. Visualization, which is the technique of actually seeing yourself deliver the entire presentation, is a powerful method of “programming” yourself to succeed. When you see yourself delivering a successful presentation, you will create that reality for yourself. (“10 Tips,” PG).

There are three other tips that will help: remember that the audience is pulling for you. They want to be entertained, learn, have fun, and they want you to enjoy yourself as well. They don’t want you to fail, so don’t look at them as the enemy, even when there is some trouble establishing rapport.

Concentrate on the message and forget about the fact that it’s you standing up in front of them, giving a talk. Talk to them, not at them, and share your information. Explain things as you would to a friend. And finally, use your nerves for something positive. Those butterflies can be tremendously helpful if you choose to use them correctly. So take that fear and transform it into energy, and you’ll not only adapt to any changes or difficulties in the audience, you’ll have them in your hand.

III Conclusion

Speaking in public can be either a trial or a lot of fun. You can determine which by your attitude toward the presentation; I’d suggest you have fun.

IV Reference

“10 Tips for Successful Public Speaking.” Toastmasters International [Web site]. 1998. Accessed: 15 Mar 2003.

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Adapting to the Audience. (2021, Feb 08). Retrieved September 14, 2021, from