John made the point that if you asked your audience directly what was wrong – in the event that the whole audience or some members of it were having a reaction to your talk – chances are the audience would not know or, even if they did, would not necessarily say what it was.
John chose to study the audience’s verbal and non-verbal feedback and then offered his findings on how to understand what’s happening with your audience when they themselves may not be able to tell you.
John Enright: How to Read a Live Audience’s Cues
Awareness, Responsibility and Communication Course, Vancouver, B.C., Feb. 1978.
Your audience reacts to you according to its estimation of your grounding, direction and intention.
If your grounding is off, your audience will likely respond by getting bored, yawning, lying down, dozing off, etc. If you were to ask them what’s wrong, they would likely say that they are tired, and not that your grounding is off. Check your grounding for yourself, accepting their non-verbal feedback as information. If your grounding is off, get out of your head and into something on which you’re well-grounded, in which you can speak from experience. (1)
If your direction is hazy, people may respond with frustration, though not necessarily anger. They may quiz you on “So what?” kinds of issues, the questioning underlying their probing being “Where are you taking us?”
If you’re well-grounded and directionless, the audience may hang in with you, simply looking puzzled and confused, perhaps scratching their heads or crossing their arms, as if to say, “What’s your point?” Check out your direction and lay out your destination, the point you’re trying to make or steering towards.
Again, if you ask for verbal feedback, the response may or may not be helpful. For example, someone saying, “I’m lost” may mean, not “I don’t understand” but “I don’t know where you’re taking us and I want to know.”
If you’re allowing competing intentions to guide your actions, without raising them to your audience, the listeners may respond with irritation or hostility. The slow asking of a question when you are feeling rushed but haven’t expressed it may be designed to force you to share with the audience what’s going on.
The angry response from someone who feels manipulated may signal to you that you are asking the audience to do something implicitly, without having laid out that what it is you want done, why or how.
For example, you may ask the audience to engage in an exercise and stress that it must be done in a certain way which is inconvenient and for which there is no discernible reason apparent situationally. The audience becomes angry until you tell them that you want to use the data in your thesis and for that reason need it in the form you specified: using the data in your thesis is a competing intention here.
Raise your extra considerations (or competing intentions) to the audience, and the hostility, if it exists because of them, will likely disappear.
(1) I.e., move up from simply intellectual knowledge to experiential knowledge.