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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Your Audience's Receptivity Level: Important Aspect For Successful Speaker

Half the inexperienced speakers in the world think that the audience will sit listening, uncritically absorbing every word they say, like a huge sponge. The other half have never even thought about it. But does an audience uniformly listen to everything the speaker says? Do they really hear every word? The sad fact is that they do not. Attention is not the simple, conscious activity we would like to think. Everyone’s mind wanders constantly.

The novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf contain a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the inner mental life of ordinary people. Bloom, or Mrs. Dalloway, do not pay attention to one thing at once; their minds are a stream of ever varying ideas and impressions, where one thing after another floats to the surface with little apparent connection. While your audience’s minds may not be as interesting as Joyce or Woolf’s heroes and heroines, they will certainly be no less unreliable! Attention is simply not the steady beacon we would like to think. An audience is more like the lines of yellow warning lights on a motorway; their attention flashes on and off randomly at unpredictable intervals. Imagine unsynchronized flashes of light mingling with a background of darkness, as attention switches on and off. This may sound a harsh image, but it contains a large truth. Speakers cannot assume that everyone is listening all the time.

One of the reasons why people do not listen to every word that a speaker utters is that their minds can go much faster than the speaker’s voice. It is an obvious point, and it is confirmed by the fact that everyone’s reading speed is much higher than their talking speed. While sitting listening to a presentation, the audience’s minds have spare capacity, which they will fill by watching what else is going on, and observing the non-verbal components of the speaker’s message. They can also use this spare capacity either to pursue private thoughts, or to ponder the remoter implications of the topic. They are certainly not sitting with vacant minds, waiting for the next word.

This spare capacity is prey to being pre-empted by day-dreaming. And once a mini day dream has started, it will be more interesting that the next few words of the talk. The listener will pursue his day dream for a few seconds, before he switches his attention back to the speaker. There has been some interesting research done on attention, and how it is controlled. American neurologists argue that concentration is the result of suppressing countless nerve events which spontaneously trigger trains of thought all over the brain. Untrained mental activity is very largely random.

Training is a process of reducing (not increasing) the brain’s activity, clearing the mind so that a single chain of thought can be sustained. The longer this clearing process continues, the more the pressure builds up from other concerns wanting conscious attention. The successful speaker will recognize that this pressure will break through continually, whatever he or she does. The audience will indulge, involuntarily, in ‘micro-sleeps’ which are momentary rests, gaps in attention, when their minds plunge into a sort of dreamy semi-consciousness, before emerging refreshed to pay renewed attention. We should not blame the audience for their fickle behaviour and paucity of interest. Rather, we should be realistic, and try to be aware of who is listening and who is not.

The listeners, then, are not just passive vessels, sitting with ever open minds. They are, like everybody, full of their own concerns and interests, and prone to drift off for fantasies, day dreams, or private thoughts. Some speakers regard the idiosyncracies of the human receiver as a nuisance. George Miller remarks:

I have the impression that some communication theorists regard the human link in communication systems in much the same way as they regard random noise. Both are unfortunate disturbances in an otherwise well-behaved system and both should be reduced until they do as little harm as possible.

But such an attitude is clearly nonsense. It is not willfulness on the part of the audience which makes them imperfect receivers. It is the operation of a natural mechanism. The speaker’s job is to recognize, and plan for this fact. You cannot change it.