There is no audience.
No, really. It may seem convenient to call the group of individuals in front of you an “audience”, but they are, first and foremost, people.
I stress this seemingly obvious fact because there’s a tendency to see the audience as anything but human:
– It can sense precisely how stressed and/or (un)prepared you are,
– It is aware of each and every mistake you make during your talk,
– it will sense any deviation from your planned outline as if it knows your entire speech by heart,
– It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets… anyways, contrary to popular belief, a public speech is not a public hearing. It is, in it’s essence, talking with a group of people. Furthermore, the audience isn’t an Audience – an amorphous creature that reads your thoughts and cruelly judges you every chance it gets. It’s a group of individuals, and:
1) they can be in various moods, depending on the time of the day, their energy level, prejudices, ammount of thoughts and troubles on their mind, how hungry they are, their belief in the power of the zodiac etc. Oftentimes different people in the group will behave and react completely differently to your talk because of their current mood.
2) they usually have only the vaguest idea what you’re going to talk about. This means that they don’t know what you’ll say, in which order you’ll present your idea, OR whether what you’ve just said was scripted or improvised. In fact, anything you say, whether planned or not, will most often be regarded as planned unless you make it very obvious that you’re improvising… and even then, they’ll easily accept it if you seem to know what you’re doing (if you think you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing, read on to 3). Making glaring factual mistakes is, of course, a different matter.
3) they mostly won’t notice your nervousness nowhere near as much as you think, IF AT ALL, unless you go out of your way to show it, especially by painting a very vivid picture, as some people seem so eager to do, with something like “Please excuse me, I’m very nervous right now, but please don’t pay too much attention to my shaking hands and trembling voice.” which usually results in people paying attention exclusively to your shaking hands and trembling voice.
Yes, there are rules in which people in groups influence each other, yes, there is a sense of atmosphere and energy which permeates the group of people in front of you, but they are still people and there are, first and foremost, rules for addressing people and for finding out what sort of reactions you can expect from them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Talking to an audience should sound and feel as natural as talking to your best friend. It’s a different kind of friend, sure, you’ll be more careful with your choice of words and you’ll learn to slightly modify your tone, but it should look and feel natural, because it is something very natural. “No, talking to my friend is natural, talking naturally to a large group of people is something only a few talented people can learn!” Really? As opposed to the preinstalled software you got at birth on how to communicate with friends, a skill which you didn’t have to work on at all? All the socially awkward penguins are stuck with the Windows Vista version and there’s nothing they can do about it? I don’t mean “natural” as in you’re either the one in ten thousand who’s had it since birth or not at all (which simply isn’t true), I mean “natural” in the sense that you have the innate capacity to develop your communication skills to the level where you can do it as spontaneously as walking, no matter how many people you’re talking to. And when you get there, you’ll push on, learning how to be even more effective in your choice of words, examples, tone and so on.
But how to practice this skill? Where can you find opportunities for speaking to a large group of people? I’ll explore a few ideas in the next post.