Throughout our careers as scientists, science communicators and public speakers, we may be asked to give many different types of presentations. Each time we speak it is a unique experience with different audiences and different venues. In fact your audience will perceive your presentation differently based on who they are, their level of engagement and level of education. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes between you and your audience than just the words that are spoken. We are constantly adapting in the moment to non verbal feedback from the audience without even knowing it.
When practicing with a new presentation we tailor how we present based on our preconceived notion of the audience. I’ve recommended to take time beforehand to consider, the audience, the venue, and the subject matter, to create the perfect presentation for the event. However, our presentation is a manifestation of not only the material we put together, but also our current emotional state, and the response of the audience. In most cases we are far more connected with the audience than we think. In this post we will briefly explore how our perception of the audience and their perception of us, can influence our speaking style.
How does the audience see you and your subject matter?
By the very nature of speaking in public we are relying on being broad enough to reach most of the audience, but not too simplistic so as to disengage any one person. From the perspective of the audience, everyone will remember or connect with something different. The audience is considering not only what was said, but what they think it meant, and how they identify with that idea. This similar to how eye witness testimony can be so different even if two people saw exactly the same event. In the court room the main ideas will likely be the same, “a man stole a car”, but the finer details can be different, like thinking he drove away in a blue car when it was actually red. The way that your audience perceives your presentation is largely based on what details they remember to be important (stolen car) and how they filter those details (was it red or blue). This is the same reason why you can go watch a movie with friends, and each person will describe a unique experience afterwards. Your audience will experience your talk in the same way good or bad, right or wrong.
How do you see yourself and your presentation?
Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves for missing a fact or detail during a presentation. Perhaps we made a mistake in how we wanted to define a topic or we used the wrong words, it happens to the best of us. There is an old saying that, “we are our own worst critics”, and it can be true for anyone who works under the eye of public scrutiny. As a presenter, we have an idealized picture of how the material should be presented even before we get on stage. This is a natural human tendency to try to predict the outcome of an event before it happens so we can be prepared. The problem is that usually things go differently (good or bad) from what is in our mind and we get discouraged feeling a little out of control. The reason however things go differently is not always because we make mistakes but because we are adapting based on the audience.
In a one on one conversation you know immediately whether the other person understands you or not, because of non verbal feedback. Having only one person to focus on allows us to stop and repeat ourselves if the other person is lost. As a communicator we are constantly adapting our language and our tone to make sure that the we are understood. When you speak to a large audience, you still are receiving non verbal feedback whether you know it or not. Unlike a one on one conversation this feedback is coming from many different sources, so you are not just adapting based on one person’s response. Being critical of ourselves while speaking can be generally positive but it is also very easy to let that criticism go too far. We need to be critical and scrutinize our work during the planning phase of the presentation. Once we are on stage, however, and after the presentation is over, being overly critical is of little help. So before you think that things didn’t go according to plan, consider the value of adaptation and thinking on your feet. And finally, the perception of your talk by the audience is probably very different from what you think.
How can you use perception to your advantage?
The biggest difference between you and the audience is that you know the material better than those listening to you. Therefore as the presenter it is much easier to see and focus on the errors or shortcomings since they appear so obvious to you. Yet, for the most part the audience cannot stay completely focused all the time and take in every detail. They are constantly trying to adsorb new information and assimilate it into their current way of thinking. This is why generally not everyone will experience the talk in the same way. Audience members are also easily distracted, especially as our technologies are ever more present with notifications and instant responses. The vast majority of the world is having a shorter and shorter attention spans as technology advances. The point is that we need to focus on grabbing the attention of the audience more than anything else. Getting the audience to experience the talk in our idealized view is not really a realistic goal since all the information is filtered by the perception of audience. As communicators the idea is to remain fluid and be ready to adapt, explaining your subject based on any feedback from the audience. Remember, that the audience heard what they perceived and it was a unique experience for them whether they enjoyed it or not.