Presentation Audiences – 5 Barriers To Active Listening And How Public Speakers Overcome Them

As a speaker it might seem remarkable for some of our audience not to listen to us. But it's not remarkable. It's true. And there are good reasons for an audience being inattentive. Many of the reasons are down to us as speakers – and there are things that we must do about it.

  1. Information overload. It's a fact that we give too much information in a speech or presentation. We use intensive bullet points or lists such as these! We often have more than one PowerPoint slide for each 5 minutes of talk (sometimes many more). We use too many examples, analogies or case studies. In all cases the listening powers of the audience are being treated a disservice. Less information is more.
  2. Audience Preoccupation. An audience's travails at home, in the office or on the sports field can leave them underwhelmed when it comes to our speech. As speakers we have the duty to know, or at least understand, our audience. If industry redundancies are in the air when we speak to the Manufacturing Association their thoughts will be elsewhere. If the big match was last night or tonight then we'd better be prepared.
  3. Think ahead. When we speak at the rate of some 150 words per minute our audience might well be thinking ahead at the rate of 600 or 700 words a minute. They may be pursuing a tangent that we left a moment ago. Or they may be puzzling over something that's not quite clear. In all these instance our duty as a speaker is to be alert to their situation. We need to build structure and organization in our speech. We must use a good outline and make distinct recognizable points. We must use repetition to emphasize these points. And we must be alert to audience reaction as we speak. If the eyes glaze over, then there's something wrong with our presentation.
  4. Noise. Not all public speaking will be in a rarefied auditorium with pitch perfect acoustics. Afraid not. For most of us will become familiar with speaking in a noisy conference room, a seminar in the basement or next to the hotel kitchen. And to exacerbate the environment, we should also note that a good proportion of our audience is likely to have some form of hearing impairment – that's the way it is. We have to accommodate it. Prior preparation will help. We can ensure that our audience is as close as they can be. We can ensure that the seating is raked towards us and we can ensure that the catering team roll out the coffee trolleys once we have finished. Beyond that – speak up, tone up and emphasize the key points.
  5. Audience exhaustion. We should be alert to the audience's physical tiredness. Their active listening to a day or two of conference speaks is exhausting. If we are less competent to be speaking at the end of an event we need to be prepared: be ready with some participative exercises, change the pace or use more multimedia.

Tackling the 5 challenges of a non-listening audience is not hard work. We need to project enthusiasm and interest in our topic. We have to appear animated and fired-up – even if it is the final day of a 3-day conference. Our speech should present clear tangible benefits to our audience – providing good reason for their attention. And we have to structure our speech to meet their attention needs. It should begin on a solid footing, have a recognizable middle and end on a high note. By keeping the speech simple and uncluttered we ensure that the barriers to listening are easily overcome.