I’ve been speaking in front of groups for 40 years. The current pandemic has turned some of those live events into virtual connections or recordings. The audience is remote, or missing. And that changes things completely.
A speech or class is not a one-way communication. Obviously, if there is an audience, they can ask questions. But as Heisenberg might have noted, the very act of observation — in this case, the audience observing the speech — perturbs the act that they are observing.
Any decent speaker is very finely attuned to the audience. Are they rapt with attention? Are they shifting in their seats? Which jokes did they laugh at? Are they surreptitiously consulting their smartphones? The speaker attempts to influence the audience, but the audience also influences the speaker. The audience also influences itself; they unconsciously take cues from each other on how to react. (That’s why sitcoms have laugh tracks.)
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that you can’t step in the same river twice — because the river is changing. Similarly, no one gives the same speech twice; because the audience reactions are different, the speech is different.
At first, I didn’t realize how important the audience was to my work. But I once gave a speech in Europe; members of the audience were hearing simultaneous translations in several different languages. Their reactions were delayed and subject to the accuracy of the translation. It was far harder to figure out if I was hitting the mark.
Virtual speeches and classes
I’m more of a teacher than a proclaimer, so the audience is particularly important to me.
I’ve written about presenting workshops on videoconferencing systems like Zoom. As a workshop leader, you must pay particularly close attention to the faces in the audience — get a feel for their level of attention, ask questions, engage them in discussion. This is not just for their benefit. It is also for your benefit as a teacher, because it will help maintain your energy and engagement regarding the material.
This is particularly important now, because your work-from-home audience may be distracted by children or pets, or may be in conflict with a spouse regarding time spent on work — and that’s on top of the normal anxiety associated with the global pandemic. Speaking or leading a workshop becomes an intensely human connection. At these moments, it’s crucial to see your audience as the humans that they are, because that connection is what is going to sustain both you and them as you communicate something valuable.
Presenting this way is very hard work. A three-hour workshop in person is tough but exhilarating. On a videoconference, it’s exhausting even if you sit in one place, because you are both presenting and concentrating very hard. Give yourself time to recover; never schedule several of these sessions back-to-back.
Recording speech and video content
I am now recording a version of my workshop for the Content Marketing Conference (I was scheduled to speak there, but they have turned their content into an on-demand video collection).
Some speakers I know have replicated their speeches, going so far as to pace around in front of the camera as they would on a stage. I salute that effort; it’s hard to replicate a speech in your study at home.
I’ve given the workshop I’m recording about 30 times. In addition to having my lines and quips down pat, I know what to expect from the audience. And I have built that into the recording. I have also put exercises into the recorded workshop — the content appears on the screen in slides, and I ask people to pause the video, work on the exercise, and then resume.
This will never replicate the in-person or even the remote experience, because the audience is not there to influence me. If you watch it twice, it will be the same — it’s like a photo of the river, rather than the ever-changing flows of an actual stream.
This took even more energy than it takes to run a virtual workshop, because the audience is not there to connect with. You have to create your own energy. (I’m sure this is similar to acting for film, versus acting in a theater.) You have to be over-the-top energetic, and it’s very challenging.
Thousands of professors are experiencing this for the first time right now — and if that is you, I know how you feel.
My only advice to you is to imagine the audience in front of you. Maybe even put a plush toy, or a photo of your favorite students, in front of you as you present. Connect with that audience, and you may be able to connect with the audience watching on their devices at home.