Moving Your People from Passive Listeners to Protagonists

MovingHow many times have you each stood in front of a group of people and looked out at what seemed to be nothing but blank faces? Whether you are trying to convince the audience of a new idea, engage them in a new process or inspire them to take an action, it can sometimes feel that you are speaking into a void of passivity. For most of us, that can be very frustrating and unnerving.

Most audiences today, in a meeting, a play or a movie, expect that their role is to be one of passive listener (and judge). They do not participate in the event directly but instead let what is happening in front of them roll over them. If it goes well, they will be moved, frightened, engaged, made to laugh, made to cry and applaud at the end. But they won’t have an active role to play.

It was not always so. Prior to the 19th century, the audience in many plays would hiss at the villain, cheer the hero and suggest lines they should say. That is not what audiences are expected to do now. However, there are exceptions that proved the rule.

I recently went to a production of Richard II at the Globe Theatre in London, where Shakespeare’s plays are performed in a setting as much like the original as possible. And, like then, today’s audiences are made active participants in the play. The actors speak directly to them. They are sometimes touched. The actors may rise from amongst them. They are expected to actively respond to what is happening in front of them. Today’s more timid and passive audiences find themselves taking part and becoming an element of the play’s action.

Participation is not dead! We can create participation, even virtually, in every group to whom we speak. Every presentation, every meeting, is a conversation between you and your listeners, even if they do not speak a word. Your job is to step from delivering information into investigating your listeners’ responses, from telling to conversing. Just as you would do in a conversation with a friend or colleague, you must put more attention on the other person than on what is happening with you.

If you shift your focus to your listeners, several things occur. You immediately become more interesting to them, because you are interested in them. Your nerves begin to calm down. You move and gesture normally. You speak at a rate that is appropriate to the people in front of you. You can more easily remember what you want to say next. And your audience feels as though you are actually in relationship with them and care about their responses.

When that happens, your listeners begin to be participants in the meeting or the presentation, rather than passive observers.   The more that happens, the more they are engaged, inspired and willing to take action. You get results. And you have a much better time getting them.

This is the first part in a three blog series on the importance of your audience.

Twila-ThompsonAbout the Author: Twila Thompson is a founding partner and Director of European Development The TAI Group. Visit The TAI Group, like us onFacebook, and follow along on Twitter (@TheTAIGroup and @helloitstwila).