How to read your audience in 10 seconds

Members of an audience don’t usually think of themselves as being observed, and consequently their body language is relatively easy to read.

The ability to read an audience while you are speaking, and to adjust your content or style of delivery on the fly is generally considered to be a top-level skill for a speaker.

What are the audience’s demographics? Will this affect their body language?

Do gender roles from culture translate into reduced eye contact? Are audience members fidgeting and moving around a lot because they’re teenagers?

If you aren’t really sure what to expect from the demographic you are presenting to, click the following links:

Age, gender, sexual orientation, education, religion, culture and psychographic

What is the venue like, and how are the stage and lights set up?

For smaller rooms with natural lighting, where you can make eye contact and are one the same level as the audience, you may want to be a little more relaxed and down-to-earth.

For a big stage with spotlights, play up the professionalism and showmanship.

You might request that lighting be altered in a way that will help you emphasize your message and tone better.

What time of day is it? Is it in the morning and everyone is ready to get started? Post lunch when everyone is low energy? Have they had a few drinks and are easily excited?

You might have to adjust your tone and energy accordingly.

What are they wearing?

If the majority of the audience is in jeans and sandals, perhaps you can free up your tone and use more slang and colloquialisms.

If they are in suits or heels, keep it more professional.

Look out at the audience before you get on stage: Are people sitting close together and chatting, or are they facing forward, on their devices, somewhat solo? Do they look like they want to be there, or do you get the feeling they are there because they have to be? Is the audience happy conversing with each other?

Work with the mood that is in the room instead of against it.

If people are chatting, use interaction more, get them to participate and interact with each other. If they are more solemn, stay on topic and add a lot of value early on.

Notice what makes them smile or nod.

If you’ve struck a chord with them, make a note of what prompted the positive response, and come back to it (or replicate it) when energy seems to be dipping.

Similarly, did something you say get an applause or verbal sounds of agreement? That is a clear indication of what your audience wants to hear more of.

This list could go on indefinitely depending on your powers of observation.

The point is this: if you can adapt your talk based on your audience, you will increase your ability to get your message across, build your audience base, and increase the likelihood you will get hired to speak again.

Reading you audience’s body language

Communication research suggests that up to 70% of all communication is nonverbal.

Being able to read your audience can mean the difference between a speech which falls flat, and one that inspires and informs meaningfully.

Look at their facial expressions and how they are holding themselves.

Are they tapping their toes?

Touching their mouth?

Are they smiling or grimacing?

Are they nodding? If so, is it fast or slow?

These cues can be decoded and help you figure out whether your message is hitting the mark or not.

Being able to to assess your audience is an essential skill to be successful as a speaker.

It is important to never judge one solitary piece of body language on one audience member. Instead, look for “couplings” of body behaviors on multiple audience members.

For example, if five or six people are all scowling at you with their arms crossed, and most of them are not making eye contact: chances are they disagree or feel hostile towards your message.

On the other hand, if a lot of people are leaning forward and stroking their chins, you probably have them thinking heavily about your topic. If only one person is smiling, and the rest are on their smartphones: it might be time to switch tracks.

See the images below for some common body language, and what it means.

How to tell if your audience is agreeable and entertained

Smiles are indicators of acceptance and agreement. Bright, wide smiles, coupled with eye contact and nodding are telltale signs that your audience agrees with what you are saying, and are having a good time.

If your audience is laughing, giggling, or even suppressing (by covering their mouth) a laugh that means your jokes and stories are hitting the mark. Find out more about using humour in your presentations here:

Slow head nods indicates agreement, understanding and acceptance of what you are saying.

Even better is when they are coupled with a slight eyebrow raise, this generally means that the information is also new or interesting.

How to tell if your audience is open and interested

Audience members who are interested in what you are saying will smile and lean slightly forward. They may tilt their head slightly to side, or slightly furrowing their brow, occasionally blinking in concentration.

Their posture will be fairly upright and attentive, while still seeming relaxed and smiling.

Your audience is thinking about what you’ve said

Hands are the number one clue here. You can usually tell if your audience’s’ brains are busy by what their hands are doing.

Hands that are clasped together indicate that they are considering what you are saying.

Stroke the chin, generally with one finger slightly pointed upwards means they are processing and judging what is being said.

Another great indication the audience is thinking about what you are saying is they or put their fingers or hands close to their mouth, but in a very relaxed fashion.

Hands in the “steepled” position indicate they have made a decision about what you’ve said, or have made a decision about what they want to do next.

Your audience is feeling neutral to you and your message

Neutrality is not necessarily a bad thing, and is probably where most of your talks will start: they have not decided yet whether or not to believe you or whether your message will be relevant and believable.

You can tell when an audience is feeling neutral when they have a somewhat blank face: neither smiling nor frowning, and their body is in an upright (or slightly forward-leaning) position.

How to tell if your audience is confused

Be on the lookout for confused faces: it might mean you need to go back on your point and explain it either more slowly or in a different way.

Confused body language and facial expressions are somewhat easy to spot. Look for asymmetrical body language: including a furrowed brow, head or body tilted to one side, their mouth might be pulled down and to the one side, they may have one raised eyebrow. They might also do a quick scan around the room to see if other people are also confused.

Sometimes, if an audience member is thinking of a question but doesn’t want to ask, they might cover their mouth with their hand.

Is your audience getting impatient with you?

Sometimes your story, tangent or point might be running a bit too long, and your audience will want move on or make the point.

Look for quick head nods. Slow head nods are good and signify understanding, whereas a quick head nods are the nonverbal equivalent of saying “Yes we get it, move along.

Audiences can move from impatience to irritation within a matter of moments, which can segway into disinterest and boredom quickly. If they are ready for the next point or piece of information, they will start getting very active with their feet and legs by circling or swaying their dangling foot, alternating their legs, or tapping one of their feet.

If you see this coupled with them pulling out their smartphone, picking up the conference or event pamphlet or agenda, or glancing down at their watch: you need to pick up the pace or move to the next point quickly.

Your audience is bored.

Boredom will immediately block your ability to get your message across. How can you tell your audience is bored? They will start to shut down, tune out and turn off.

First, their posture will change. They may turn away from you slightly, or slump in their chair.

Their head may drop down or to the side or down and might have to be supported by their hand to keep it upright, and they may cross their arms over their body.

They will start fidgeting, either with their devices, glasses, watches, pens, jewelry: basically anything they can get their hands on. They may even make audible sighs.

Members of the audience who become bored are also easily distracted: they may start to whisper among themselves, doodle on notepads, or searching for something through their bag.

Watch out for a loss of eye contact, a glaze over or deadpan looks, coupled with brows and lips that slightly pursed.

If their eyes are not on you, they are probably thinking about something else: fixing their eyes into space as they are lost in their own thoughts. A bored audience member may even close their eyes for brief or even long periods.

That vacant look on their face means they have mentally checked out. You’ve got to do something, like change your vocal tone, start moving around more, or integrate some interaction, to bring them back into the room and get them to refocus on what is being said.

You might be making your audience uncomfortable.

When people are uncomfortable, they will try and “get away” from whatever is bothering them.

Because they can’t really get up and leaving the presentation, they will try and move their body away instead. This means they will move their head away from you, or turn their body as far from you as they can.

A body language “tell” is when audience members touch their neck: massaging their neck and shoulder, or by touching something in the area around their neck, like their scarf or necklace. It is a pacifying gesture, an attempt to self-soothe.

Look out for people who are touching or partially covering their face. This comes from a subconscious desire to hide the face or cover ears, blocking out what we don’t like.

It could be your topic, story or body language that is making them feel uncomfortable, and often the audience will pick up on your energy (especially when you are nervous). If you feel you are making them uncomfortable, stay calm, and wrap up your point, moving on to the next topic.

How to tell if your audience disagrees, is disapproving, or hostile

If the audience is scowling and frowning at you, there is a good chance they are feeling negative about what you are saying.

A handful of unhappy faces should be fairly easy to catch, but also be aware of more subtle negative body language, such as arms folded defiantly, coupled with legs crossed, and a loss of eye contact. They mentally building a barrier against you.

It’s pretty obvious when someone is disapproving of what your saying, but let’s go over the telltale signs: they may be pointedly discussing something with the person sitting next to them (not smiling or nodding), or they avoid looking at you by looking at the ceiling or turning their face away from your to look at the floor or out of a window. If they are looking at you and actively frowning (not resting “grumpy” face), this is also a good indication.

When you have said something that the audience is upset by, their body language will get defensive.

This is straightforward to spot: they will attempt to protect themselves by crossing their arms over their chest, crossing their legs or ankles, and tighten their mouth into a straight or slightly downturned line or clenching their teeth and jaws.

Alternatively, they will try and escape, by looking away from you, turning their body away, pointing their feet towards an exit, and exhaling loudly (or “huffing”). They turn their face, heart and upper torso away from the stage, or pointing the legs or feet toward the exit and exhaling quickly and loudly, as if their body is trying to make a break from the room.

If this happens with more than a few people in the room, switch track immediately or level with them and see what the problem is.

In terms of audience engagement, the worse thing to do is to pretend that nothing is wrong and just keep going. While you might be worried about your time frames, or getting all your points in, an audience that is thinking negatively about you and your presentation is not listening any way, and it is better to get them back on track with you, then to “power through” your content.

What can you do if you feel like you are losing your audience?

By working with your audience, you’ll become a more dynamic speaker, and one of the best ways to do so is to be honest about how you are doing and interact with them on their level.

If they look collectively confused, ask them what part is not clear.

If they look bored and unengaged: be honest about how your are doing and lightening things up with a story or joke.

If they look angry, suspicious or defensive, go back through your information and state your sources and facts, and then try and switch tracks or open the floor up for a Q&A to get to the bottom of why it is upsetting them.

Show your audience that you are aware of what is going on, and that you want to make active changes to make it better and easier for them to understand.

They don’t need you to be perfect, but they are looking for someone who can understand their perspective.

We would love to hear some of your experience as a presenter, have you lost an audience and gotten them back on track with you again? What did you do? Contact us here.

This was originally posted on the SpeakerHub blog.




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