I recently attended a conference and was both a speaker and audience member. It was on the smaller side; there were probably a few hundred attendees and the audiences ranged from about twenty to hundreds of attendees for the keynotes.
After one of the talks, a speaker came up and said “you were such a good audience member, thank you!”. I said the same thing to one of the attendees of the talk I gave.
I wanted to share how you can be a good audience member at a conference talk. It’s important to note that this advice is for attending in-person talks where the speaker can see the audience. This is typically when there are up to one hundred people. I’ve spoken in front of 800 people and it’s a different experience. While some of these principles apply, in general individual behavior is less important as audience size grows.
And online talks are an entirely different experience for everyone, both audience and speaker! I don’t have enough experience to give any advice for that scenario.
First, though, why would you care to be a good member of an in-person audience? After all, you are providing your time and money to the conference and the presenter. Isn’t it the speaker’s job to entertain and educate you? Why would you expend any energy to help them do so?
First, I’m a big fan of being respectful of other human beings and helping them succeed. Public speaking is a common fear and being a good audience member can reassure the speaker and reduce that fear. It’s hard up there, whether it’s your first talk or your hundredth.
The second reason is that you can make a talk better for yourself. You can learn more and you can tune their presentation to your needs. They are an expert and you can take advantage of their expertise.
So, here are my tips on how to be a great audience member:
- First, remember that you don’t owe the speaker your time, but you do owe them respect. If you aren’t interested in the talk, if it isn’t what you thought it would be, or if you have another commitment or pressing issue to address, leave the room. Don’t make a big show of it, but get up, walk quietly to the door, open it carefully, and depart.
- Since you’ve decided to stay, pay attention. Silence your phone. Turn off your computer. If you want to take notes using your laptop, disable wifi so you won’t be distracted.
- When you understand and agree with something, nod and smile. This feedback provides the speaker a signal that they are reaching you.
- If you don’t understand, frown or make a questioning face. No need to harumph, but give the presenter feedback that the topic is confusing or that they haven’t made their point clearly.
- If you have questions, ask them. Speakers should inform you if they want to be interrupted with questions during the talk up front, but if they haven’t, a polite hand raise should be acknowledged. If it isn’t, save your questions for the end.
- When asking questions, realize you may not get a complete, satisfactory answer. If you don’t, I’d avoid a secondary question. Instead approach the speaker after for a more in-depth discussion.
- If you didn’t like or understand the talk, give that feedback to the speaker afterwards. No need to be rude, but saying something like “I wish you’d given more background on <X>” or “It seemed like you skipped over the complexities with <Y>” will help the speaker improve their talk.
- If you feel moved to do so, thank the speaker afterwards. This is not required but a talk is a lot of work and any feedback is usually welcomed.
Am I always a good audience member? Nope.
I get distracted sometimes.
But when I follow my suggestions above, I learn more from the expert on the stage.