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Listening to the Audience

Published by "The Toastmaster" Magazine, July, 2003

Listening is the most important aspect of communication; it is too important to leave entirely in the hands of the audience. All great performers “play off” of their audiences. It’s essential that we speakers also respond and are affected by ours; that we close the circuit of feedback and create a living, dynamic relationship. This requires sensitivity, an emotional intuition, an empathic skill also known as “reading the audience.”

When comedian Bert Lahr was acting in “The Beauty Part” by S. N. Berman on Broadway, his son John was watching from the wings. At one point Lahr got a huge laugh on a single syllable. When he came off stage his son asked him how he had known they would laugh at that moment. He replied “I just listened to the audience. They told me there was a laugh there.”

Anyone who works with an audience needs to develop the skill of listening to them. Ideally, we want to create a dialogue with them, just as we do with a group of good friends in close conversation. When the feedback loop is closed and each party is reacting energetically to the other, that’s when communication is the most successful and the most gratifying.

Standup comedy is the clearest example of this phenomenon. When great comedians are hitting their stride, it is like a tennis match. The performer serves a punch-line and the audience returns laughter. The performer reacts to the laughter, listening for the perfect moment to slap another one across the footlights. An experienced comedian can build the momentum in an audience until they become hysterical with laughter. Sometimes the audience must burst into applause simply to win a moment’s relief from laughter.

Few of us have the talent, skill or experience to provoke that degree of response from an audience. But we each create some level of response and it’s our job to listen for it, understand it and answer it. When we talk of ‘eye contact’ most people think that is a gift we give to the audience, one of the speakers’ tools of communication. That’s just a by-product; the true purpose and value of eye contact should be reading them, paying attention to them, listening.

It’s important to read them correctly, and not to assume that they are hearing the same meaning you intend. This can be tricky, because sometimes the audience is not aware of their actual perceptions. Misunderstandings often rise from mis-hearing or mis-listening (mistening?). We hear what we expect and we listen for what we secretly want to hear.

Isaac Stern, the great violinist, once gave a concert in Montreal that I was privileged to attend. For one of his encores he played a piece that ended with progressively higher and higher notes ending with the highest of all played whisper-quiet to a rapt audience, hushed and still. Interrupting the applause, Stern stepped forward and asked how many of us had been able to hear the last note. Fully 80% of us raised our hands. “That’s remarkable,” he said “because that note is impossible to play on the violin. I merely drew the bow across without touching the strings. You created the note yourselves out of your need to hear that sound.”

The same thing happens in everyday communication. We hear what we need to hear. My younger sister was nicknamed ‘Mimi’ as a child. When she grew up she considered this diminutive name distasteful and told us all she wished to be called by her given name, ‘Rebecca,’ instead. I agreed to this, though it was difficult to break a habit of twenty-odd years. As the years passed, I grew accustomed to ‘Rebecca’ in thinking of my sister, and by the time she reached her mid thirties, I was re-trained.

One day we decided to meet in New York, on Fifth Avenue in the Village. At the appointed time I was standing on the corner, scanning the crowds of people and traffic for my sister. When she appeared on the diagonally opposite corner, I called to her - “Rebecca! Rebecca!!” - in a good strong voice. No reaction. She kept looking around in the wrong direction, obviously not hearing me. At last I shouted “Mimi!” and immediately her head snapped around to find me waving to her. What she was listening for on the deepest level was the old nickname. Perhaps at that moment on the corner she felt a bit small and in need of an older brother.

Being heard accurately and correctly is not to be taken for granted. We speakers must be aware of all the obstacles, physical, mental, emotional, and musical that stand between an audience and perfect understanding.