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 rachael@rachaelwest.com.au.

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 rachael@rachaelwest.com.au.

You can get 150 public servants to play (seriously) at a conference

There are a number of clowning games I had only ever taught to groups of about ten – until I opened day 2 of the Local Government Professionals Women’s summit and had 130 women walking around the room, playing.

Play evokes learning

If you think clown is slapstick, my style of clown is more modern and less literal. If you think play is for children or cringeworthy ice-breakers, think about the concept of Lila, or divine play that makes (say) puppies learn the skills for life. For the style of clown I practice, play is fun and can even be silly, but it always evokes learning.

While games can be played to evoke learning in a specific category (say teamwork or communications) the specific takeaways are often unknown until you do it. This means the play-er is participatory, observational and reflective all at once.

You learn more when you play the same game over and over – and over

One ‘game’ we played relentlessly with my clowning teachers was the “walk around the room game”. (I tend to name games rather literally.) Everyone, literally, walks around the room.

This might not sound like much of a game, but it is amazing how much play you can find in something so simple. Even for adults, and especially if done repeatedly, past the point of boredom so you can notice the subtle and unobvious.

The same game can teach you about lots of things

I use the “walk around the room game” in training to warm people up, tune into themselves, notice others, notice their environment, notice how comfortable they are with eye contact, develop complicité in a group, observe patterns, learn how comfortable they are with rules, notice how other people follow rules (or don’t), notice what they notice. The more you play the more you notice.

All from one simple game, with a few carefully chosen variations.

One creative constraint changes everything

At the Local Government Women’s summit the “walk around the room game” was impeded by your typical conference tables and chairs and by a lot of people. Yet it worked, perhaps because of the “creative constraint” that meant people had to work harder to stay aware.

My favourite moment: when I introduced the rule “there must be one person walking around the room at any one time and only one person”. When people think they are following the rules (but aren’t) and when others have responses to that, that’s when things get really interesting.

This is an excerpt from Finding Your Voice, a workshop for women finding their voice in the workplace. Incorporates storytelling, play and reflection. Designed for 120 people. Get in touch to find out more.

Being heard is not about being loudest

When I was a young engineer, I was told to be more assertive. I was given tips like, “Be the first to speak up in meeting”, or “Apply for jobs even if you don’t meet all the criteria”. Apparently the lack of representation of women in the workplace could be solved by being louder.

But speaking up doesn’t mean you are heard. And being heard doesn’t mean anything changes. (Refer the last three decades on climate change.)

I was invited to open day 2 of the Local Government Professionals Women’s summit with a 90-minute storytelling, clown-inspired, historically referenced workshop, Finding Your Voice.

If engineering taught me that being more assertive was not enough, clown taught me that sometimes (in fact, mostly) not saying something is even better.

The silence of clown, or the yogi, or the person with a contribution to make, is not a passive silence. It is a silence of listening. Of observing. Rather than speaking to assert oneself, they speak at the right time for their audience, their students and those they intend to influence.

Finding Your Voice is a workshop for women finding their voice in the workplace. Incorporates storytelling, play and reflection. Designed for 120 people. Get in touch to find out more.