Ask any professional actor, and they'll tell you that every performance day feels different, in no small part because of the audience. Tuesday nights don't feel like Saturday matinees or Thursday evening shows, and it's not just because WE feel different — the audience, night to night, gives off a very different vibe. Every show is unique.
Here's an example: I remember doing a show at a theatre outside of Boston, when another important event was happening in town: the Red Sox were in the World Series. Needless to say, the audience was small, and a bit restless. In fact, that restless energy culminated in someone shouting out the score of the game during a scene. Obviously, it effected our performance and our interaction with that particular audience. But we knew that audience might be unusual going in, because we'd done some simple audience analysis beforehand.
It's very important to know everything you possibly can about your listeners to discern how best to deliver your message to that particular grouping of humans. We do it in the theatre all the time, and adjust our performances based on that knowledge. (Here's another example: one theatre I work for has a wonderful evening where they bring in residents of a local retirement community. We know some of those lovely folks are a bit hard of hearing. We're even more mindful of the volume of our speech on those days, because we don't want them to miss a word!)
Actors have some quick shorthand that we use for audience analysis that you can add to your presentation prep. Remember to do some deeper analysis pre-presentation (rank of people in the room, what they know about your content, what you want them to know about your content, etc.), but here are some quick questions that can help you either way:
1. What day is it? For an actor, a Sunday matinee crowd can be great, because folks are well-rested and often relaxed, where as a Friday night audience can some times be (surprisingly!) more quiet and less interactive. Why? Because patrons have come from a long week of work, and their energy can be low.
Before you present, take the day of the week into account. Are you presenting on Monday, before the week has worn people down? Or at E.O.B. on Friday? Try and be sensitive to whether or not your audience might need a little extra effort to keep them engaged. And remember, pitch variation and strong clear movement go along way towards keeping your audience hooked.
2. What time is it? We all know how it feels to get dozey after a meal, or wobbly if you're just about to eat one. Whether you're speaking post-dinner at a business ceremony, or in the boardroom after lunch, that low-energy feeling can strike your audience. You know how that feels, so bear that in mind. Keep your pace up, and be sure to engage them with a great story.
(Incidentally, and contrary to what one would think, in the theatre Friday and Saturday night audiences can sometimes lag because people have just gotten up from a date night dinner — and possibly a few drinks. Actors remember this, should the audience be a little quiet. While they do keep their energy up, they don't want to push TOO hard and go over-the-top in an effort to get results that may be buried under a big dish of pasta and red wine.)
3. What else is happening? Sure, your next presentation probably won't be interrupted by someone yelling out the score to the Red Sox game. But, your audience can be distracted by big events happening in the outside world. Keep that in mind! While you might not be able to change the mindset of the die-hard fan, you might be able to use a positive event to your advantage. Connect with your audience by using the event as an attention grabber: "It's a big day at the Olympics today! I promise to shout out a medal count update at the end of my presentation."
Simple questions like these can help you analyze your audience in an instant. The better you know your audience, how they may be feeling and what their mindset might be, the better you can get your message across to the people waiting to receive it.
Do you analyze your audience pre-presentation? Have you ever had to deal with a particularly difficult audience? How did you do so? Let us know in the comments!
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