During the Speech: Adapting to the Audience

Learning Objectives

Explain how to adapt to your audience during your speech.

Now that you have done your audience analysis and have learned what you need to know in order to tailor your speech, let us consider how to adapt your presentation. Presentations should be adapted from the beginning to fit your audience. You have learned already about adapting to the audience before you present. What about during and after your delivery?

If an audience is getting bored, restless, confused, or irritated, it’s important for the speaker to recognize and adapt to the situation.

Three men sitting at desks touching their faces and looking in different directions

Body language can be tricky to interpret, but we do it all the time nearly automatically. Is this audience bored or thinking hard about the presentation?

Nonverbal language is a strong clue for the speaker that they have lost a person or the group. If someone starts yawning, rolling their eyes, looking at their phone, or staring into space, most likely you have not connected with them.

Chatter is another strong indicator that the audience is not connecting with you. The audience might start talking very quietly as you are speaking. While this may be rude, it also is incumbent upon you to switch course and try to connect with them.

Of course, falling asleep is an obvious signal that the person is not connecting to what you have to say. No one wants to see someone’s chin drop to their chest during the speech. This sight can be very discouraging to the speaker. However, since falling asleep is involuntary, it often has more to do with the situation of the listener than the content of the speech.

It can be tricky to read a room. Sometimes when people look uninterested or distracted, they’re actually thinking hard. Other times a listener might seem restless and impatient, when in fact they’re excited about the speech. The same can be said of doodling on paper—some listeners focus better when they’re drawing or doodling. If someone is typing on a laptop throughout your talk, are they taking notes on your great ideas? Or catching up on email? Try not to assume the worst, since this will only add to your stress and negatively affect your performance.

Don’t panic—but do adapt. The following strategies to reengage your listeners can be helpful even if the audience is still with you, and even more so if you’ve lost them.

Adapting to Feedback

When you see signs that you’re losing the audience’s attention, it is time for to switch gears and adapt to the situation. The technique you use to change the situation is completely dependent upon your assessment of who the audience is. Here are some ideas.

Movement: For long presentations such as a lecture, workshop, or training, it can be very helpful to stop the speech momentarily and ask the audience to stand up and stretch or walk around a bit. People do not have long attention spans and are used to shorter sound bites; so, it is helpful to get their blood flowing and moving. Most of the time, people will be more engaged after they move around.

Examples: Sometimes, the examples you are using do not connect with the audience. How do you know that the examples are working? Look at people’s faces. Do they look puzzled or confused? Do they start to chatter or tune out? If this is the case, be prepared to speak more extemporaneously and think of new examples on the fly.

Group of people listening to presentation and raising their hands

Asking questions that can be answered with a show of hands can be a great way to reengage an audience.

Audience Input: There are times when a speaker feels like they just can’t connect to the group. When this is the case, try soliciting input from the audience. Ask them a question. Make a statement that requires agreement or disagreement via a show of hands.

Silence: Don’t be afraid to use silence. There are occasions when it works to stop talking. Silence can be your way to let the audience know you get it—they are bored. It allows the group to gather themselves and refocus on your speech. It gives you time to think about how to improve based upon the audience’s boredom.

Shantelle was asked before her first day on the job to prepare a five-minute introduction to give to the company on her first day. On the day of the speech, Shantelle started to give her speech in front of one hundred new colleagues. One minute into the speech, she could see that some were beginning to chatter and others were glancing at their phones. She could have gotten upset and let her emotions get the best of her, but she did not. Shantelle stopped speaking and was silent for a moment to gather her thoughts. She then asked the group a question: “how do you feel about being at work today?” Shantelle then went on to say that she was excited to be here and asked a couple of more questions that people could answer by raising their hands. After the speech, several people introduced themselves and welcomed her to the  company. Shantelle had switched gears mid-speech to make her introduction a success.

Adapting your speech as you are presenting requires observing your audience and paying attention to their cues.

To Watch: Barack Obama and Hecklers

Negative verbal feedback is less common than negative nonverbal feedback, but especially if you’re talking about a politically sensitive issue, it’s something to be aware of and prepared for. Depending on the nature of the interruption, it may be best to ignore it, but it may also be a good idea to acknowledge the disagreement and move forward. In the following clips, President Obama deals with interruptions by protesters and hecklers. Rather than getting upset about the interruptions, he uses these moments to make impromptu arguments about civil discourse, political conversation, and the legislative process.

You can view the transcript for “How President Obama handles hecklers” here (opens in new window).


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