In public speaking, as in private speaking, it’s not unreasonable to expect the audience to listen to what the speaker is saying, rather than talking amongst themselves. I’ve expressed in other posts my view that a speaker has no right to bore or bamboozle an audience, that the audience’s attention is something to be earned rather than demanded. But I also believe that, unless the speaker is exceptionally bad (I don’t mean inexperienced or nervous, I mean arrogant), it’s only polite for the audience at least to feign interest and concentration.
The larger the audience, the more latitude individuals have to exchange a few words with their neighbours without disturbing the speaker. The problem is that audiences tend to assume critical mass occurs at much smaller numbers than is the case from the speakers’ perspective. Just because you’re one of a hundred people in the seats in front of me, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t see – or even hear – you talking. Next time you attend a speech or presentation, please spare a thought for how off-putting it can be for a speaker to see little conversations going on in the audience.
If you’re the speaker, here are some suggestions for how to avoid this situation:
When you’re preparing what you’re going to say, think of it from the audience’s point of view. What do they need to know about this subject? What do they know already? If you’re delivering a focused, relevant talk, pitched at the right level, it’s unlikely you’ll lose your audience to chats about golf handicaps, new shoes or what’s for lunch.
As you’re preparing, ask yourself what questions the audience may have. Address any burning issues early in your talk if you want people to be able to listen to everything you say – otherwise, they will be distracted by waiting to hear your angle on whatever it is they’re primarily concerned about. The muttering you hear may be disgruntled speculation as to when you might get to the point.
Make your speech or presentation as clear as possible for your audience to follow. As an additional safeguard, if circumstances allow it I recommend you state at the outset that if anyone wants quick clarification, he/she should interrupt you as you go along. If people start asking each other to explain what you mean, proceedings can soon unravel.
Of course, the fact that your audience is not sitting in stony silence may very well be a good sign. If you’re giving a stimulating talk, you can expect to hear a buzz as people take in and respond to what you’re saying. When this happens, pause until the sound begins to die down – as with letting them laugh at a joke you’ve made, you don’t want to rush the moment or move on until your listeners are ready to move with you.
Even if it’s a single member of the audience whispering to another, it may not be a bad sign. A client of mine addressing a conference was momentarily thrown by the chairman getting up and going to have a word with someone in the front row. As it turned out, the chairman was so impressed by my client that he was inspired to ask him to write an article for the organisation’s journal. A great result. Badly handled by the chairman but nevertheless a great result – and a useful reminder to my client and other speakers that not all audience talking is negative.