How You Can Tell When Your Audience Is Tuning Out

It seems really peculiar to even write a post about this, since staying in touch with your audience seems at the heart of presenting.

But it’s no surprise, in this era of non-Solution Pitching, that presenters really don’t stay very tuned in, and that includes tuning in while presenting.

So let’s not assume anything, and instead try to come up with a list of telltale signs that your audience is not as into your presentation as you may be.

  1. Body Language.  Our old friend body language.  Are your listeners folding their arms, hunkering down into their chairs, avoiding your eyes?  Chances are they’re getting bored, but don’t know how to tell you.
  2. Fidgeting.  A special variant of body language.  If your audience is shifting back and forth, legs are tapping, feet swishing up and down: chances are they’re getting bored.
  3. Playing with tech toys.  When your audience starts firing up smartphones, tablets, or Google Glass wearables, chances are they’re not doing it to take notes.  They’re tuning in another channel, not you.
  4. Not meeting your eyes.  When your audience won’t meet your eyes any more, there’s something they want you to know: you’re turning them off.  (Special case: if you’re staring at them relentlessly, they won’t meet your eyes anyhow.)

Those are probably the Four Horsemen of audience indifference.  And they share a common cause:

If you don’t pace your presentation and take the temperature of your audience from time to time, you will turn them off and they will tune you out.

Let’s suppose you went to a party, and someone started talking to you.  They didn’t stop, they stared at you the whole time, and when you tried to turn away they pulled you back to face them.  You’d think they were insane; you’d tune them out; and you’d look for the first opportunity to run away from them.

But isn’t this just what some pitches are like?

Of course nowadays an amazing number of presentations are given by phone or Webex or the like, so most of these cues from your audience – body language, fidgeting, glazed expressions, playing with toys – are inaccessible.  But even in these venues you can take the temperature of your audience.  Pause frequently, so people can speak up.  Try to have one live audience member with you, so you can use them as kind of a canary-proxy for the unseen ones on the phone.  And – sparingly – ask the unseen audience if what you’re saying makes sense.

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