Be a good audience member, not just a good speaker

I’m a speaker coach. This means I mostly focus on what you do that helps you connect with, and communicate to, an audience. But talks are about sharing ideas, and your role in the audience is as important as the work of the speaker.

The speaker is there for you

Picture an auditorium. Every audience member is seated five minutes before the event starts. Phones are off, each person settled comfortably into their seats, and they watch the stage in anticipation. An esteemed speaker enters from stage left – they see an interested audience. The speaker feels the attentive energy of their listeners.

Your presence at an event matters.

Compare to this more common scenario: a large room in a corporate office, where a lunch and learn is about to start. Two colleagues are speaking for the first time about an important project they have been working hard on. Three quarters of attendees are seated by 12pm, lunches in lap. The speakers notice three key people are yet to arrive so they start late.

Your energy fuels the speakers to give a better talk

Our two speakers open with a nerdy joke (they’ve never spoken publicly before) and warm into what turns out to be a captivating story. Their colleagues realise the topic is important, and pertinent. They are fueled by their audience’s energy.

When you listen, the idea is heard.

Then, someone walks in. They enter quietly, sit in the back corner – and check email.

Attention shifts from the speakers, to the disruption. This means that the careful holding space speakers have cultivated with their opening, is lost and the audience isn’t quite listening.

The person who came late doesn’t even realise.

When you take action, that idea grows

We communicate to share ideas. We give talks because we want someone to do something – and we attend talks because we want to learn. Checking email during a presentation seems quiet, but everyone feels it, and you obviously can’t fully absorb what the speaker is saying. This means you are unlikely to do anything differently in your work or life as a result – which is the whole reason you are there.

Next time you attend an event, take a moment to consider the time your speaker has invested in preparing this talk, for you. Notice the time you are giving up to be there. And imagine how your listening, together with the speaker’s speaking, allows this wonderful idea to grow.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. For assistance with your next conference or panel appearance email

Photo by Monica Silvestre.

If you have to use your mobile phone for speaking notes here are four things you should do

When you give a presentation, do you rely on your memory, or written prompts to keep you on track? In Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes I explain why I don’t recommend you use a mobile phone to store your speaking prompts.

If, however, you absolutely must use your smart phone for notes, here are four things you should do:

1. Make sure your mobile phone is turned off, and in airplane mode.

It should be obvious why you’d silence your device on stage. But is airplane mode necessary? Answer: Absolutely. The nano-second of distraction when a notification appears on your screen is enough to lose your audience.

2. Don’t hold your phone in your hand when you walk on stage.

Nothing shouts social media addiction like a phone you can’t put down. The moment you walk in front of your audience, you want to give the impression you are ready for them. Keep your phone in your pocket until you need it* or, carry it with other props, such as a book or folder, so it looks like official speaking apparatus.

3. Tell your audience you’ll be using your phone for notes.

Help the crowd see your mobile phone as a boring, basic note keeping device, rather than the multi-media attention-grabber it is for most of us – simply by explaining what you will use it for. I occasionally use my phone as a clock when I deliver training; my go-to explanation: “I’m just using this to keep time”.

4. After referring to your phone, look up and take in the whole room.

In Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes I explain that your gaze narrows when you look at your phone. This has a detrimental effect on your ability to engage the audience. If you do just one thing after reading this article, I would love it to be that after every glance at speaking notes on your phone, you look up, breathe in, and see your whole audience – before you start to speak.

*Hint: Aim to be note-free for your introduction. At minimum, you should be able to say your first line without a prompt.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field grow. For information on coaching or workshops email

Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes

We use our phones for everything, from alarms to metronomes. Referring to your phone while you are giving a talk is one thing I recommend you don’t do.

1. When you walk on stage with your mobile phone, you look like you are – walking on stage with your mobile phone
You know your phone is your notes system, and your audience will probably work it out pretty quickly, but they don’t know this the moment you walk on stage. First impressions are made the instant you appear on stage so a phone in the hand may signal unprofessional, or that you can’t put your technology down.

2. Looking at a small screen narrows your gaze
If your audience is tech savvy and phones-for-notes the norm, there is still an issue that will distance you. Each time you glance down at your phone for your notes, your eyesight narrows. Think about what happens when you look at a work screen then lift your gaze to the horizon – it takes a moment for your eyes to readjust. To have a good connection with your audience you need to be able to take them in, to include them all in your awareness. When your visual field (and therefore attention) narrows, so too does your ability to hold the attention of every person in that room.

3. You hold a phone lower than paper notes
When speakers look at mobile phones, my observations is that they bend their neck considerably, closing themselves off to the audience. We tend to hold paper notes higher, giving more open body language.

4. You’re swiping when you should be engaging
Most screens are pretty small, so you’ll generally need to swipe up and down to follow your notes. This means your eyes are away from your audience for longer. It also means you are doing more than looking at your devide – you are interacting with it when you could be attending to your audience.

5. Mobile phones take our brains into another zone
When was the last time you used your phone just for the task you intended and didn’t find yourself checking four other apps while you were there? Habits are hard to break, so you may find a moment on stage where – despite your best intentions – your brain has thought about what else you could do on your phone. It may be a nano-second but it’s enough to break your flow and lose your audience.


Rachael has been a facilitator, speaker and speaker coach for over 10 years. She coached two TEDx Perth speakers to standing ovation and has helped numerous graduates and executives prepare talks and panel appearances that raise their professional presence. Email to find out more.

Be a better speaker – listen closely to your audience

Nothing taught me more about public speaking and facilitation than studying clown. Ironically, clown is a practice that involves very little talking.

In clown, we listen closely to how we are feeling because we know the audience will pick it up. It’s vulnerable, but also the key to wrapping the audience around your little finger.

This step in listening – first to ourselves and then the audience – is possible after ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’, which I covered in the last post.

‘Fake it until you make it’ only takes you so far
What I learned in clown about listening goes against much of the advice I see given to public speakers. If the clown ever fakes something (which she often does) she let’s the audience in on it. This brings the audience in to the show – think engagement. Faking it, by contrast, sets up a divide.

Listeners know when you’re genuine
While starting with a smile can work magic, actively covering up your discomfort on stage can look a little weird. It’s like trying to convince a good friend you’re fine when you’re not: either your friend will pick up your true mood, or interpret your behaviour as a sign you aren’t happy to see them.

Tune into your audience
If you’re trying desperately to look tough and happy when you’re very, very nervous, you’ll get tied up in your own thoughts. Get comfortable with the discomfort, and then turn your attention to your audience.

Break down the fourth wall and let the magic happen
The fourth wall is the imaginary line between actors and audience in a stage production. Clowns break down that wall, by being part of the audience and vice versa. Develop your skill of listening to bring your audience past that wall. They’ll get more out of the talk, and you will feel it.

Delve more into this topic in one-on-one speaker coaching with Rachael West. Email to find out more.

Be a better speaker – get comfortable with being uncomfortable

I’m yet to coach a speaker who isn’t worried they will forget what they’re saying. I personally don’t think it’s a massive problem if you do forget your words – or fall off the stage for that matter. The audience will get over it.

But if you are worried you will do something stupid, you can end up doing some weird stuff on stage.

Now, one argument says you should stand up straight and smile and no one will know you’re shaking inside. It’s not a bad tool to have up your sleeve. But I’ve found a more powerful option:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Imagine this scenario:
You forget your words mid-talk.
You pause and it feels awkward.
Half a second passes. For you, it feels like an hour.
You still haven’t said anything.
You don’t want the audience to suspect you’re uncomfortable so you try to mask your panic and push on.
In a bid to stay composed you talk faster to fill the gap.

In fact, this can happen when you haven’t forgotten your words. It can happen when you’re worried you will.

Instead, get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s normal. But most importantly, the moments where you are comfortable with uncomfortable are the moments you can listen to your audience, playfully feed off their energy and deliver a really engaging talk. Not just one where you look confident.

Delve more into this topic through speaker coaching. Get in touch at

Be a better speaker – the power of stillness

Given the choice, do you choose to speak behind the lectern, or take the lapel mic and roam free? I choose the latter, but recommend speakers I coach do whichever they are most comfortable with.

When speakers who normally prefer the protection of the lectern decide to challenge themselves by going with the lapel mic, one of the things we work on is how they move.

Standing on the open stage lets the audience see you. This is powerful.

But with such exposure, the question “What do I do with my body?” becomes more prescient.

I support and encourage natural movement when speaking. (Aside: pacing, on the other hand, is often distracting for the audience and – in my experience – a sign the speaker is not totally comfortable.)

For natural movement to have its full power when you are speaking to a large group, root yourself first in stillness. Not the contrived sort, or the clasp-your-hands-tightly-behind-your-back-so-I-don’t-pace.

Rather, aim for the kind of stillness that says, “I am here for you, dear audience” (to quote, perhaps, surprisingly, my clown teacher, Rick Allen). “What I have to say is important and I want you to hear it.”

That kind of presence and physical stillness tends to force emotion into your voice, and expression into your face (in a good way!). Many conferences are so large these days that speakers are projected onto a large screen, making it even more potent for your audience.

Delve more into this topic in the upcoming Speaker Coaching course with Rachael West. Email for details.