• Barb Mayfield

Command your audience

Updated: Sep 20


Have you ever attended a presentation in which the audience was NOT engaged and became disruptive, or at best, was simply not paying attention – possibly distracted by side conversations or looking at their phones?

The presenter obviously lost command of the audience (if they ever had it) and either appeared oblivious to the audience’s lack of attention or demonstrated varying degrees of frustration. The result is a presentation environment NOT conducive to learning.

The effective presenter is in sync with their audience. They have full “command” of the audience without being overpowering or condescending. Chapter 36 in The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Guide to Nutrition Communication is titled “Successful Audience Management promotes Communication.” Highlights from the chapter are summarized in Tip Sheet 13: 5 Strategies for Audience Management, available here: https://www.nutritioncommunicator.com/resources. (Click on the pink button labeled Free Tip Sheets.)

Thankfully, when attending sessions at the Academy’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) last month, I did not experience any out-of-control sessions. However, I did witness varying degrees of audience engagement that led to greater and lesser levels of learning and overall enjoyment:

  • I was impressed when the opening speaker had the courage to allow thousands of participants to do a partner discussion and was very effective in regaining attention. For anyone who thinks you can’t do activities with large audiences, you can with proper audience management.

  • I also witnessed sessions in which there was minimal audience engagement and even found myself distracted by the FNCE app, watching audience questions appearing and wondering which ones would be answered. Technology is helpful, but at the same time can be distracting. Speakers who allow audiences to access technology permit distraction.

  • My favorite sessions were ones in which the audience was involved, the speakers were tuned in to the audience, and the participants could feel a sense of connection between speakers and audience members and among the audience, creating a sense of community. The presenters were “in command.” They exhibited all of the following strategies. Every. Single. One.

5 strategies for audience management:

Strategy #1 Be fully present

The effective communicator is fully present. Rather than being focused on themselves, or distracted in their thoughts, they are focused on connecting with the audience. They are actively aware of everything in the presentation environment and seek to fully engage with their audience. They are able to sense the “mood” and respond to it, making it work for them.

Strategy #2 Observe, listen, respond

Being fully present involves observing your environment, adapting and adjusting what you say and what you do to create and maintain a productive atmosphere. Make eye contact with your audience and “listen” with your eyes and ears to their verbal and nonverbal feedback. Respond accordingly to promote greater understanding and engagement.

Strategy #3 Establish clear expectations

Audiences of all ages and varieties benefit from clearly defined expectations. Do not assume your audience knows what behaviors are acceptable and allowable. Clearly convey your expectations – in spoken or written announcements – before starting your presentation. Make expectations simple and few. Consistently follow them and review as needed. Be a role model.

Strategy #4 Call people by name

Using audience members’ names promotes a positive, more intimate atmosphere and reduces the potential for difficult or disruptive situations. Names help form stronger connections among presenters and audience members. Names reduce negative behaviors via the desire to avoid negative recognition as well as the desire to gain positive recognition. Call people by name.

Strategy #5 Provide clear Instructions

Audience participation activities and all types of audience engagement are more effective and efficient when presenters provide clear instructions. Before any interaction with your audience, provide clear directions for how to contribute or participate. Plan ahead how to solicit volunteers, break into groups or select partners, and how the audience is to provide answers and complete activities.

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

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