How to Respond to Audience Feedback

This is a basic, linear model of communication.

This model is so simplistic it is almost inaccurate. Very rarely does communication work this neatly. Just for starters, this model doesn’t account for distractions, feedback, or any context.

But communication comes closest to looking like this model during a presentation. For the most part, the speaker is the sender, delivering a one-way message to a group of receivers we call the audience. Except for that tricky thing called “audience feedback.”

Audience Feedback

Writer and former professor Richard Nordquist defines feedback like this. He says, “In the communication process, feedback refers to a response from the receiver which gives the communicator an idea of how the message is being received and whether it needs to be modified.”

Feedback can be verbal, such as when someone responds to a question or continues the conversation. Or it can be nonverbal, such as when audience members nod their heads in agreement or cross their arms to indicate frustration or an unwillingness to change.

­­­When audience members send feedback to the speaker, they are taking part in the “conversation” of the presentation. They are sending subtle signals about what they like or don’t like. They are indicating their level of agreement or disagreement. And they are demonstrating how engaged they are with the presentation.

Responding To Feedback

Just like in other forms of communication, if someone feels ignored, he will probably stop communicating. So as speakers, we need to learn to pick up on these “messages” being sent back to us while we speak. And we must learn to respond to them promptly and appropriately. Following are a couple tips for responding to audience feedback. Keep in mind though, these are generalized tips. They won’t apply in every scenario, so make sure to analyze your unique communication context.

Head Nods, Smiles

If you are receiving this kind of feedback, that’s good news. This means the audience is enjoying your presentation and you can continue your great work. You’ll probably find that you feed off the positive energy your audience is sending you, and it allows you to be more expressive in your delivery.

Crossed Arms, Leaning Back

These are usually nonverbal barrier stances, meaning the audience has not decided whether they are going to let you or your ideas in yet. They can be seen as closed off or defensive forms of feedback. However, don’t let these derail you. They might also be interpreted as evaluative stances, meaning the audience is listening intently and is carefully considering what you have to say. That’s a positive thing. You have their attention. When you see this kind of audience feedback, try using phrases like “you may be wondering…” or “you might be thinking…”. This shows that you acknowledge the audience might have questions or other viewpoints.

Shuffling, Gathering Belongings

This type of feedback is a clear indicator that you have exceeded your allotted or expected time as a speaker. You are now on borrowed time, and you need to wrap up as quickly as possible. When the audience doesn’t feel that you respect their time, their impression of the whole presentation can quickly turn sour.

Distracted Behavior, Nodding Off, Sighing

If you see signs of boredom or distraction, it’s crucial that you respond. Typically, if you’ve conducted good audience analysis and prepared an engaging presentation, you won’t run into this. However, even for the best speakers, messages sometimes fall flat. And if you are giving a longer presentation without any breaks, it’s very difficult to keep the audience engaged. When you see this type of feedback, don’t be afraid to make some changes.

You could open the floor up for questions about what you’ve covered so far. Or you could plan intentional group discussion questions at certain intervals to give your audience a chance to interact with each other. You might take a small break, which will allow your audience to return refreshed and more attentive. Or if you don’t have time for any of those, you could tell a relevant story. Research shows that stories engage us on another level. Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge says, “Stories are the pathway to engaging our right brain and triggering our imagination. By engaging our imagination, we become participants in the narrative.” So a story can help to spark audience attention and provide some respite from heavier content. The one thing you shouldn’t do is just keep trudging along, ignoring clear signals that something needs to change.

Whatever the feedback is that you are getting from your audience, you should attend to it. After all, your audience is sending you signals to help improve your message and your interaction. Don’t be afraid to adjust accordingly.

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