Source: Flickr; Photo by Jesarqit.
“Probe the audience”, “Interact with the audience”, the pundits say. And out on a limb they go, the misfortunate presenters for whom good advice but poor timing garner nothing but the deathly silence of an unsympathetic audience. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with some sort of cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone here had a family member die of cancer?”
Naturally, the long silence that followed was not an indication that the audience was made of healthy individuals whose parents were healthy and grand parents were still in their prime. It meant that the presenter had frozen the whole audience. As he waited for his answer, looking straight at the audience, no-one spoke or raised a hand. He must have felt like the scientist listening to the SETI space probe waiting for a signal betraying intelligent life in the universe 🙂 for there seemed to be no life at all in this audience. What had he done wrong?
1) The question was too personal and far too risky: What if one participant had replied: “Yes. My mother died of cancer last week.” What would the presenter have responded?
2) The timing was wrong. At the beginning of a talk, the audience is still in neutral gear, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, and certainly not yet ready for interaction.
At the beginning of a talk, the presenter has to move the audience out from a “Tri-State” or “high impedance” mode (infinite resistance) into a positive state (hopefully not a negative state). The presenter has to make the current pass between him and the audience. To do that, two things are necessary. First, the presenter must open an invisible low resistance channel between his or her positively charged personality and the down-to-earth audience. And I know no better way to do that than by smiling and welcoming the audience. Secondly, the presenter must establish a difference in potential between him and the audience – for example, by creating a knowledge gap that the audience is eager to let him fill. The question is a good way to bring to life that knowledge gap, particularly an intriguing, provocative question or statement like Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat”. But that question expects no answer from the audience. It is a rhetorical question. The presenter is expected to bridge the gap he created.
Do not rush the audience into action. An audience that has had time to be interested in both the presenter and his topic is easier to engage. By the time the talk ends, the audience is ready to interact through the Q&A: the time is right, and the audience is ready.
By Jean-luc Lebrun