I was a mere 12 years of age when I learnt the importance of ‘listening’ to your audience. Why? Because I was the victim of a speaker who didn’t. And I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by over 800 of my fellow primary school pupils, packed sardine-style into a school hall, on one of the hottest Johannesburg mornings in living memory (allowing for the fact that our memories only stretched back 12 years, and the first three were a little hazy.)An official from the Department of Education had been called in to give us an inspirational talk. He began by telling us that the alphabet held all the keys to success in life, starting with the letter A.
“A,” he explained, “Was for attitude.” After ten minutes on the subject, he then proceeded to B, which stood for Bravery. Twenty minutes later he reached C for Caring…
That was enough.
But to our horror, he proceeded on to D. Then, E, F, and unbelievably, a soul-grinding G. He kept us in the hall for nearly two hours – a group of hot and wriggly 12-year-olds – until he reached the letter L. By this stage even the teachers were rolling their eyes and sighing.
Did he speed up? Or wrap it up? Did he in any way listen to what his audience was telling him and adapt? Not a chance. He had reached M before the headmaster walked onto the stage and said that we had run out of time. We had actually run out of time an hour and a half beforehand and had been humouring him ever since.What surprised me was how utterly oblivious the speaker was to the groans and sighs each time he proceeded to a new point. It was as if he was stuck on auto-pilot. I remember feeling simultaneously embarrassed that we were all groaning so audibly at him and annoyed that he wasn’t taking the hint. Not surprisingly, our guest was never invited back.
Always listen to your audience
Rule number one in public speaking is: Don’t be boring. If you aren’t reading the reactions to your presentation, you’ll never know how you’re doing.Read their faces. Feel the vibe they are putting out. They will speak volumes to you through their expressions, their fidgeting, their smiles, and their laughter or the lack of it. Have they been sitting for over an hour? Do they need a bathroom break? Is it too hot in the room? Are they frowning at you, as if to say, ‘I really don’t understand.’ If so, read the signs and react accordingly. Speak to them. Ask questions. Adjust and adapt, or wrap it up. Do whatever may be required, but for heavens’ sake, don’t just soldier on in zombie auto-pilot. No one likes an oblivious presenter.