Helping Others Speak

Helping Others Speak

How the audience can help the speaker succeed.

By Scotty Burch, ATMB, CL

Every audience member wants to know “what’s in this for me?” But what can the audience do to help the speaker succeed?

As listeners, it’s easy to forget that what we do affects the speaker. Sure, we want to be polite and in our seat on time, but good audience etiquette is more than that. There is an unspoken connection between a speaker and an audience. You may have heard speaking coaches discuss a speech as “a dialogue,” and it’s truer than most people (and many speakers) realize. A speaker, consciously or unconsciously, “reads” the body language, eye contact and expressions of an audience very closely. These are the cues to the speaker as to how the speech is being heard and the message absorbed. If the audience is distracted with a handout, that may be an instant cue to the speaker to raise the energy level, to do something different, or to speak about something in the handout. If all the faces in the room have become expressionless, the speaker may be running the session too long and it’s time for a break. If people are smiling and nodding, they are in the moment, tracking well with what’s being done on stage – and the speaker sees it.

As the audience member, you are there for a reason; you have a motive for listening. Your attention, reactions, laughs or crossed arms all signal to the speaker how things are going for you – and probably for the rest of the listeners. At any moment, your actions can have a bearing on what happens next. If you want to get the most from the speaker, then you should offer something – your body language and attention will help the speaker bring forth his best performance, and as a result you’ll get better value for the investment of your time.

Remember the unspoken rule: The audience wants the speaker to succeed.

Phone Faux Pas

In any given audience, someone will get a cell phone call, a page, an e-mail, a stock market alert or a baby-monitor update during a speech. Each of those could announce themselves with a surprisingly unique tone, chime, note or buzz – my cell phone rings with “Call Me,” the old rock tune by Blondie. This level of nuisance is so common now that people have become somewhat numb to it. To make matters worse, busy professionals have developed the bad habit of compulsively answering at all times. That’s fine if you are walking between buildings or having lunch with friends. But it’s not fine when it interrupts a speech that 400 people have paid to hear.

At the beginning of the session, the speaker will probably politely ask that the meeting not be interrupted by those outside forces. But the speaker can’t stop those buzzers from buzzing. One cell call can ruin a major point for a speaker and have lingering effects. If a ring tone interrupts the thoughts of the room, don’t make matters worse for the speaker by making comments on the rudeness of others. As audience members, we can help the speaker to move on by letting go.

Try to maintain your composure, and you’ll be helping the speaker through the mental disruption that comes with an annoyance to all. Whether it’s a cell phone ringing or a paging system, a technical malfunction or a low-flying aircraft, try to quickly get your thoughts beyond the annoyances and you’ll help the speaker perform at the same time. 

Tips About Q&A
No matter what field you are in, you’ll have questions. One of the biggest mistakes a speaker can make, however, is ending an otherwise terrific delivery with a Q&A session. This is the surest way to lose the audience, right when the speaker needs to be reinforcing the take-away. We all witness it regularly – a politician is completely embarrassed by an unrelated question after just announcing his or her favorite career-peaking initiative. Q&A can derail a message, so saving it until the end can leave the speaker hanging and the audience wondering why they came.

If the audience helps the speaker’s point by asking the right questions, then the speaker’s ideas have a better chance of success. Questions that place the speaker’s topics in the context of the desired change in environment will help. For instance, asking, “With your solution, what should I do about…?” or, “How can we apply your information to this specific situation?” or, “When will the change take effect?” This approach will help a speaker to stay on track, allowing the response to work within the bounds of the topic, further helping the audience to see relevant scenarios. As a good audience member with a smarter question, you can help everyone see how best to apply the ideas you have all just heard. And you will have helped the speaker succeed.

Once a presentation has ended, it’s easy to think to ourselves, “Well, that was interesting, but it could have been better.” What if we applied the Toastmasters speech evaluation process? How much better will the speaker be next time if he or she hears about what went well and what did not work for you? Write a follow-up note and mail or e-mail it to the speaker. A sincerely written note, appropriately encouraging, with enough specifics of your concern, can make a big difference in how a speaker pursues his or her next speech. And you never know, you may see your ideas on stage some day! With your note, you can assist a speaker to the next level of effectiveness.

By being involved, thoughtful listeners, we become part of a better speech. 

Scotty Burch, ATMB, CL, is a member of three clubs in Austin, Texas: the Austin Toastmasters, Speechmasters and Tastemasters. He is a program manager in the defense industry, and also writes a blog about public speaking: Reach him at