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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Prepare Before Speaking Infront Of Any Group

I have already suggested that an audience is a very different thing from a collection of individuals—it is a group, and as a speaker, your task is to manage this group, and present your material in a way which will help them. So the more knowledge of group behavior a speaker has, the better he or she can do their job. I do not propose to write a textbook of group dynamics; there are already plenty of good ones. In any case, the basics are simple enough. But a few pages about groups is a useful preparation for speaking. Thinking about group psychology will help you be more aware of group dynamics, more sensitive to feedback from the group in front of you, and more able to make effective preparations to speak. There is a great deal of research on group behaviour. Even in 1968 a writer noted that there were well over 2,000 different research studies on the topic. Knowledge about groups is now extensive. In many cases it reflects what instinct tells us, but not always, and conscious awareness of group behaviour can only help the speaker.

The first fact about groups we must remember is that they are composed of individuals. As speakers, we too easily imagine that the sea of faces in front of us belong to undifferentiated clones. Stereotyping is used by speakers to misjudge audiences, almost as much as audiences use it to misjudge speakers. Speakers tend to think that an audience from company ‘X’ will be all whizz kids, or an audience from company ‘Y’ will be old and cautious. And this enables the speaker to miss the fact that there may, or may not, be some of both these types of people, in each audience.

The mere fact that the audience are all sitting down, facing one way, tends to deprive them of individuality in the eyes of the speaker. This is a curious mistake, since when we are in the reverse position, sitting listening to someone else talking, we feel our individual identity; our own reactions contrast with the group’s. Yet when we are speaking ourselves, we tend to think of the audience as some homogeneous, and powerfully distinctive, object. We think of them as having an overpowering common identity. I suppose it is because we feel so conspicuous as the speaker, that we tend to see the audience as about as undifferentiated as a wall. Each brick may be different, but the total effect is massive. Of course, the truth is rather different, for each person in a group is an individual. They all have their own standards and motives, and many also belong to many other different groups.

The first lesson to be learned about groups, then, is that they are collections of heterogeneous individuals. Indeed, far from being repressed, individual roles and individual differences are often enhanced by the crowd effect, the stronger personalities becoming more assertive in response to group pressure. By considering the role of individuals, rather than of the group as a whole, you will be able to recognize an audience’s diverse needs. No talk is likely to satisfy everyone in the group, and an outsider will understand if the talk is angled towards the majority of the group. But it is fatal to talk solely to one sector, and appear ignorant of the needs of the rest of the audience. When analyzing the audience, assess the variety of different interests it represents, and try to devise a strategy which will speak to all of them.

One good technique is to alternate different kinds of approach, so that no one group has time to lose interest. Thus, for example, an audience including technical, and lay people, can be dealt with by alternating complex technical facts, with a few sentences of simple explanation. A mixed audience of marketing managers, and personnel managers will all enjoy a presentation which alternates between the marketing prospects of each topic, and the way it will affect production. People are surprisingly tolerant, and will listen to several minutes of information that they don’t understand, and which doesn’t concern them, as long as they know that the talk will come back to their own interests. By providing a mixture, a speaker can cater for a wide range of interests in his audience. But of course he can’t use this technique, or any other technique, if he hasn’t bothered to work out who his audience is, and what their interests are.

While considering the audience’s individuality, it is important to consider their relationships to each other, as well as their relationships to you. There may be both administrators, and researchers in the audience. Their ages may be both younger and older than yours. They may be more hostile to the departmental manager, sitting silently in the front row, than to you. There is nothing sinister in acquiring this sort of knowledge and skill in your understanding of groups. It does not represent ‘some dark power that enables them to manipulate people more easily.’ Knowledge about groups is a wise part of the effective speaker’s armory. It can be used to avoid making obvious mistakes, antagonizing people, and failing to explain the information. It can smooth an interaction, and help to make the talk a more satisfactory experience for every member of the audience.

Knowledge about groups, then, is also knowledge about individuals. You should learn to identify the assertive (and the ‘invisible’) members of a group. Talk to the quiet and self-effacing ones more than to the alert, responsive and pushy ones. Remember that the status of an individual influences a group’s norms powerfully. If there is a very senior manager, a highly respected scientist, a powerful union leader, or an ambitious local politician in the audience, the rest of the group will be aware of him or her. They will also modify their behavior so they seem typical of the kind of group he expects. Your role as speaker is to be aware of the restraining influence of high status members. The aim must be to counter the subconscious tension caused by the presence of the powerful person, and to help the group to relax. You can do this best by treating the special person as neutrally as possible. Don’t show him or her special attention, but equally don’t pointedly ignore them. Try to show by your distribution of attention that you regard the person as a normal member of the group, for the duration of the talk. By treating a powerful person without embarrassment and without pointed attentiveness you will help the whole group to feel at ease, and listen to the presentation.

Find the leader

You should try to identify the devious members of the group, and be aware who is functioning as group leader (he or she may be the boss, the manager, or simply the funniest, or most loud mouthed person present). It is worth noting that there will not necessarily be only one dominant figure in the group. Sociologists discovered, when they started studying groups, that there were usually ‘two leadership functions: the task specialist and the socio-emotional leader.’ There may be one member of the group who is the acknowledged expert, whose approval or irritation at what you say will be echoed by the whole group. A separate person may be the social leader, and if he or she laughs the whole group will laugh. Of course, you must not pander to these leaders; but they are useful indicators of the group’s reactions to the presentation. It is usually easy to identify the people who fill these roles. They are often the more attentive members of the audience, apparently taking their function as group leader responsibly. Other members of the group can often be seen glancing at them. The leaders, on the other hand, will rarely look at other members of the group.

Be aware, too, of the challengers for the leadership, who may disrupt the presentation by fighting their own battles for attention, and trying to score group approval. There will also be scapegoats, whom the group may want to assist you in discomforting. Be careful. The group will not necessarily admire you for pandering to their own prejudices. You will also need to learn to pinpoint both the narks and the nodders, and to recognize the tactics of opposition. Notice that some members of the group will be visibly secure in the situation (relaxed posture, crossed legs, and forward positions in the room). Others will be visibly insecure (tense posture, face partially covered by hands, and back-to-the-wall seating position). Try to encourage security, since it will aid the audience’s concentration. Try to unite the group, by acting on the individuals in the group to even out their differences. It is much easier to talk to a homogeneous group, and you are more likely to be able to galvanize their interest and enthusiasm.

Another factor is the way in which in larger groups, size brings pressures to bear on the individuals in the audience as well as on the speaker. The effect of size is to make individual listeners more nervous about speaking up, during question or discussion times. But ‘unhappily it is not always the right people who are silenced…the weight of the group may act like an ox sitting on the wrong tongues. The bore, alas, is seldom unnerved; that, indeed, is why he is a bore.’ The speaker’s role in such a large group is to function like a chairperson, evening out the pressures. He or she can do this, even during a presentation where the audience is silent. He can facilitate attention from the inattentive, and discourage the disruptor and bores.

The best way to do this is to look at the inattentive, smile, in passing, at the apparently reticent and withdrawn, and pay little attention to those who are nervous, or too highly charged. The enthusiastic nodder should receive only a fleeting glance, but your gaze should repeatedly stop at the bored or withdrawn person. The speaker has to perform a ‘delicate balancing act’. He or she must avoid outraging the group leaders, and the members of high status. But he must also make sure that the less conspicuous group members feel that they are important, and that their interest and attention is valued. The length of dwell of carefully distributed eye-contact is the main skill a speaker employs to unite and balance his group.