When the Audience Goes to Sleep

I recently spoke to an advanced public speaking class at a local university. This class began at the hour before lunch, and although I had a very stimulating and entertaining  presentation, (my view of the content, of course) there were a couple of students who had a problem staying awake. This gave me an opportunity to apply principles of what to do when the audience sleeps as you speak.

I did a quick self-evaluation. What am I doing that could create this mental lapse in an audience member?  At one point I thought I needed more variety in my presentation so I went into a brief exercise that required audience participation. They all said “oh” together in three different scenarios to underscore the importance of vocal variety since delivery was one of my themes. Simply saying the word “oh” aloud by the whole class made everyone alert.

I changed the rate and volume of my speech. When I made the next point, I paused as the slide came up on the screen. Then I slowly defined the term to stress its importance. Since I normally speak rapidly, this was an easy way to bring attention back to me.

I stopped in the middle of my lecture and asked a question of the audience and waited for an answer. The question was, “Why is a personal experience such an important part of using humor?”  Several good answers are appropriate, such as that we can all relate to personal experiences as fellow humans. Or we are more confident in telling a humorous story that happened to us. After a pause, I received two responses that gave the audience an opportunity to speak and changed the pace of the lecture.

One other change I made was that I walked to the other side of the front of the room. Just the change in location motivated several in the room to turn their heads or change position in their seats to see me better.

As I thought about the presentation afterwards, another idea came to me that might work next time to keep the audience awake. Do a perception check. I might stop and make this statement:  “I can tell by the look on some of your faces that this may be too much detail,” or, “I can tell by the look on your faces that this might be a good time to stand and stretch.”  This shift mentally or physically would wake up the drowsy listener.

Remember that movement, change, and variety attract attention. A goal I want to strive for each time I speak is to keep the attention of the audience. If I have enough variety to keep their attention, there will be fewer “sleepers” in the room.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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