Have you ever thought about your responsibility as an audience member? We normally think of a great talk as the job of the speaker, but while the speaker should certainly come ready to share some interesting material, the audience should bear just as much of the burden, if not more. This is especially true at a regularly-meeting group, like a tech user group.
The Speaker Alone
Speakers at local groups are often a mix of local community members and more-accomplished speakers. Often, the group members have just as many interesting things to say as regional or national names; what’s different is the practice, polish, and ease of a frequent public speaker. Really, this is more a short-coming of the model than of the speaker themself.
Talks put all the burden of an engaging meeting on the speaker. They get up in front of the group and lecture on their topic. The content must be structured well to bring people along, and it must be delivered with panache, lest the talk become dry or awkward. They must watch for signs of confusion or boredom and respond with emergency action when the situation begins to deteriorate. But how to respond? Even thinking through the answer to this question can make the problem worse. No wonder people hate public speaking. Not only are these skills unpracticed for most, simultaneous deployment of all of them while also thinking through the content is a huge burden with little room for error.
The Audience Is Part of the Team
Fortunately, this uneven balance of responsibilities is unnecessary. An active, engaged audience takes ownership of their side of the arrangement. This is how you should view your role as an audience member at a local tech group: not someone silently absorbing a talk, but as part of a team cooperating to make the meeting a success for everyone. If you miss a point or fall behind, ask a question. If you think of a clarifying analogy or an interesting observation, raise your hand and voice it. (Of course, if you begin to worry your voice is coming up a little too often, back off.)
As the audience participates, they invest in and engage with the talk, adding energy, nuance, and richness that makes the whole experience better for everyone. All that it takes is a community that sees it as their personal responsibility to engage and not the speaker’s job to sweep them up.
Encouraging Audience Engagement
At Detroit Lambda Lounge, we take a few focused steps to foster an active audience:
- We limit the size of the group to about 30 people so the audience is large enough to bring diversity of perspective but small enough to avoid intimidating people.
- Each meeting starts with a half an hour dedicated to snacks and conversation — and conversation is explicitly encouraged. There’s nothing like an engaging discussion to get your mind going so you can be at your best when the talk starts.
- Before each talk, we remind the audience to speak up and ask questions, that they’re charged with the responsibility of helping the speaker give a great talk.
DLL is, at this point, a very young group, but the talks and audience participation so far have been great, and I hope they’ll only get better.