Recently, I sat through a conference and decided to focus not on the speakers but on the audience. I observed their reactions to the speakers and looked for both positive and negative signs.

Communication is a two-way street. You’re not speaking at your audience but with your audience, and they are responding in different ways. Here are some reactions to look for.

Positive reactions

When the audience reacts positively to your speech, you can feel it. There’s an energy or electricity in the room; sometimes you’ll even forget about time. Here are some signs:
• Making eye contact
• Nodding heads (in an American culture)
• Laughing/smiling in the right places
• Asking questions/making comments
• Taking notes

Usually, these positive reactions happen when you’ve taken the time to frame your message in a way that is relevant and urgent for your audience. They also happen when you care about your message and deliver it in with energy, conviction, and confidence.

Negative reactions

I always caution people to not get carried away when the audience seems disengaged. Sometimes, it could be because of your presentation. However, it’s often due to outside circumstances such as a problem at home a cold room. Here are some signs:
• Looking at their phone or digital device
• Defensive body language (arms crossed, frowning expression)
• Head resting in their hands
• Not making eye contact with you
• Falling asleep

When do these negative reactions happen? Sometimes your speech or presentation is at the end of a long day. Sometimes the audience has heard endless lectures with no audience engagement. It happens when you don’t take the time to present material in a way that’s relevant to them, or you yourself are bored with low energy.

What do you do when you see negative signs? When I see the above negative reactions from a number of people during my speech (not just one person), I will include one of the following techniques:

• Open it up for questions. Pause and say, “Let me stop here for a moment. What questions do you have?”
• Ask the audience a question. I’ll say something like, “Let me stop here for a minute and ask you: who here has dealt with this topic? What did you do about it?”
• Groups of 2. I’ll ask the audience to pair up and talk through the pro’s and con’s of something we discussed in the speech.
• Summarize your main points. I’ll summarize what I’ve said so far to make sure the audience is with me.
• Tell a story. I’ll insert a relevant story that lets the audience sit back and listen.
• Table discussion. I’ll throw out a challenge and have people discuss the solution at their tables, then report back by table.

If you know the context of your speech in advance – room set-up, timing in the day, composition of the audience – then you can pre-plan those energizers throughout the speech.

Use the above indicators to read the room while you are speaking and be flexible enough to change your outline in response to your audience’s reaction. The result will be a more engaged speech and a more engaged audience.