The Importance of Being An Audience


READ TIME: 4m 30s

the audience at TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells shining a light.jpg

This is one of my favourite pictures from TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells 2019. It represents the opening of an event that had been 18 months in the planning and preparation. It represents the full house (a first for us at this venue) of over 900 people that made this our most successful event before it even started. It represents the start of what went on to be, to quote several audience members, “an exceptional day.” Most of all, it represents an audience wasting no time in getting behind the event. Our hosts walked on stage and said, “Turn your phone lights on” and straight away, they did! In doing so, letting our speakers know that they were right behind them - a warm, receptive and open hearted audience, ready to listen, thus proving me (gratefully) right in something I said many times to speakers as they prepared: ‘You won’t get a better audience than this – they will be totally on your side.’

Our audience was so good that their supportive presence led one of our speakers, Sarah Salway, who had been nervous in dress rehearsal and admitted to slightly dreading her talk, to thrive on stage and to come off beaming and saying “I loved it!” (Watch Sarah’s talk at TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells.)

Another speaker, Don Smith, said in an email to me after the event: “When the sound of the people you can’t really see, hits you like an energy flowing into you that is calming and uplifting at the same time. I’ve never felt anything like it.” (Watch Don’s talk at TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells.)

It was this comment that reminded me of the power of a great audience.


When I work with anyone preparing to speak at a meeting, an event, or to a board, it is the audience that is typically more on their mind than the content. In terms of shaping their content, that’s a good thing - preparing with your audience in mind is crucial. When it comes to presence and performance and managing nerves though, those voices in our heads that whisper all the critical things the audience might say are usually less helpful.

Knowing how much time and effort people put into preparing their talks, it’s fair to say it’s a relatively small amount of effort to be a good audience, but it’s an effort nonetheless.

If we all take a few moments to prepare ourselves to be an audience, it has the potential to transform people’s experience of speaking. Not because everything will be right or agreed with, but because they will be speaking towards warmth and curiosity rather than judgement or detachment.

It might be that there is difficult work to be done in a meeting where you potentially disagree with things that you’re being told. Is it the most useful thing to do, and in service of the best outcomes, to non-verbally communicate ‘impress me’ from your seat, or to truly listen? It might be satisfying to be right, or to be the person who must be impressed, but it’s unlikely to be in the best interests of your business or relationships.

We all know what it’s like to walk into a room and feel a negatively charged atmosphere, or even outright dislike. And when we feel that, or maybe even see a look on someone’s face or hear a comment, our energy and focus are diverted (whether we like it or not) to keeping ourselves safe, which doesn’t necessarily equate to our being at our best. In short, if at some level you want someone to do badly – the chances are they will.


And this is not about being soft, it’s about enabling people to be at their best. And the more people are performing at their best… there are surely multiple benefits to that.

smiles in the audience at TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells.jpg

Our TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells audience is again a great example because they are not there to agree with everything they hear. They are there to be informed, reminded, challenged, moved, surprised, uplifted, inspired and to understand something they hadn’t before. And this doesn’t mean they have to, or will, like or agree with everything they hear.

Every time you are an audience, you have an opportunity to listen with curiosity, positive intention and support. You have an opportunity to judge the content, not the person. You have an opportunity to show your appreciation for effort even if you disagree with the content. You can offer a reassuring smile. Attitudes are contagious and very quickly create atmosphere – what are people catching from you, especially if you are the leader in the room – judgement that closes down, or curiosity that opens up? And if to be all this sounds a bit extreme and you would never dream of looking disinterested or being distracted or judging negatively before someone has begun, what is the version of this that you might be (unconsciously perhaps) contributing to? What would make you an even better audience?

I could be doing myself out of a job here because for so many people who work with me on overcoming nerves and increasing confidence, it’s what they expect from the audience (whether it’s accurate or exaggerated by their nerves) that has the biggest impact on them. And what they expect from the audience comes from experience. Granted, it might not be a previous experience they have had with you, but we all carry our experiences with us. So, the more we create better audiences for people, the more people will feel confident in presenting to them and the less they will need me. And, well… good!

So this is a salute to great audiences, and an invitation to you to notice when you could be a better one.

The TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells team applauding our wonderful audience.jpg

At the end of the event, as the thank yous were being delivered from the stage, thanking the volunteers who had put the day on, the speakers, the hosts and everyone involved, we ended by thanking the audience. People sometimes think we are paying lip service when we thank the audience, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am profoundly grateful to the audience at this TEDx and I know our speakers and the rest of our team are too. Here are a few of the reasons we were so thankful to them:

  • For their attentive listening and their open minds.

  • For their readiness to laugh, gasp and even weep alongside the speakers.

  • For their supportive applause when a speaker found it hard to continue because the emotion became too much – an applause that said we hear you, we empathise, we feel it with you, it’s ok, and we’ll wait until you are ready to continue.

  • For their standing ovation for an incredible inclusive dance group, This Is Us. Applause, recognition and validation that meant the world to them.

  • For their communication with each other.

  • For being wiling to give things a go when our speakers asked them to.

laughter in the audience at TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells

I love the picture at the top of this post because it really does represent that little bit of light and warmth that every single member of the audience was showing towards whomever was on stage. So next time you are any kind of audience for anyone, to quote the Snow Patrol song that rattles round my head when I look at this:

‘Light up, light up, as if you have a choice.’ 

Because as an audience, as in all things, a choice is exactly what you do have.

All the photos in this post were taken by Peter Robertshaw. Thank you Peter!

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