When your audience looks really bored…


You’re standing in front of 100 people. You’ve sorted out a presentation, summoned the courage to get on with it and have actually made a pretty good start. Then you catch a glimpse of tonsils as a man in the front row yawns, and all the nerves come flooding back. I’m not sure there is anything more off-putting then feeling you’re sending an audience to sleep.

I went to a Confident Communications workshop today at the British Library, put on by the wonderful Create KX. They put on lots of workshops for creative businesses or freelancers, which are either free or at a very reasonable cost, especially if you’re based in Camden. The workshop was facilitated by Kathleen Sullivan.

Practical workshops

One of the topics the workshop covered was public speaking. Although you may want to avoid public speaking at any cost, the practical bits of speaking workshops are always the most useful.

We had to stand opposite another person and talk about something that we were proud of or really interested in. I talked about getting my first children’s book published and felt slightly uncomfortable being so obviously the centre of attention. The other person had to listen intently and do all the right body language, listening, nodding, smilling, generally friendly and attentive. So a lovely woman called Harriet made it look like I was the most fascinating person on the planet. This made the job a lot easier.

When we swapped around, there was a mean trick. I had to convey all the body language associated with being incredibly bored.

How to cope when people look bored

It was interesting in terms of how Harriet was able to continue speaking despite my best efforts to look like a sullen teenager, rolling my eyes, yawning, crossing my arms, checking my (non-existent) watch, peering over her shoulder to suss out more interesting things happening in my room.  She said it was because the subject was travelling which was a big passion for her.

We both agreed, however, that it was easier because she knew I’d been told to look disinterested, and whether she’d be able to do the same in a real scenario would be another matter.

Something we’ve both experienced was the horror of freezing up in the middle of a presentation. Harriet did it in a room full of men as part of a work talk. I did it while talking about a new website and wiki to a roomful of local government representatives. Suddenly, I was aware of someone looking bored and I lost concentration entirely and the words stopped coming out of my mouth.

Tears in the toilet

Two of my colleagues jumped into the breach and started talking, at which point I managed to right myself and continue. However, it was followed by an torrent of tears in the toilets and a crushing feeling that I had humiliated myself and let down my team.

But I’m learning that it’s really not that important. I think I was building up my talk as a performance and all the pressure that comes with it. I am beginning to realise that it should just be a conversation, one of many conversations that you have as part of your day.

Don’t assume you’re boring

Another useful tip that somebody else told me (can’t remember who annoyingly), was that although people may be looking bored, it doesn’t mean they are bored. If someone yawns, then assume it is because they had a late night last night. I liked that advice as it counters that automatic assumption that you are boring and only capable of inspiring narcolepsy in an audience.

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