Speakers and audiences see very different things.
Looking out from the stage, you see a large group of people. As much as you try to make sure that you make eye contact with individuals, you’re always aware that you’re talking with a group. Your language might even reflect that. For example, in a typical raise-hands interaction, you might ask, “How many people here have ever experienced this?”
That kind of question makes little sense when you’re part of the audience. You think of yourself as an individual, not just part of some group. You don’t know how many people have or haven’t experienced that. You can’t answer for other people. But you know that what the speaker really means to ask is if you have ever experienced whatever it is, and you’re supposed to raise your hand if you did. There’s a gap when the speaker’s mental model of “the audience” doesn’t mesh with your mental model of you as you.
As a member of the audience, you’re peripherally aware of other people, particularly if you’re at the back and you can see people’s reactions and body language. It’s an odd combination of individuality and anonymity, of being yourself and being part of a group. In a darkened auditorium, you blend into the crowd, but you’re always evaluating the talk’s points with your personal perspectives. You understand that the speaker needs to connect with everyone, but you feel disconnected if the speaker focuses on other parts of the audience more.
Personally, I find this pretty challenging as a speaker and as a participant. I know some speakers go through an almost mechanical process to make sure that they make eye contact with everyone in the room (while not looking as if they’re just sweeping the room left to right). I’ve even seen suggested grids and sequences in public speaking books. But sometimes I catch myself looking at one side more than another. As part of the audience, I find it difficult to sit still and passively listen. I want to interact with the material. I want that back-and-forth. And I want to get to know my fellow audience-members, too. I’m curious about what brings them to the talk, and what they’re thinking.
One of the reasons why I like giving remote presentations more than giving real-life presentations is that it’s easy for me to “make eye contact”. I just have to remember to look at the webcam every so often, instead of focusing on the scrolling text chat or my webcam image. It’s not real eye contact–people know I can’t see them back–but in a large room, it’s difficult to make meaningful in-person eye contact, and webcam connections seem to be okay. I feel more approachable online, and I get more comments and questions too.
It’s also easier for me to get to know people as individuals, and to talk to them as individuals. This takes a little conscious effort on my part, but as I get used to the idea, I’ll get better at asking questions and presenting even more conversationally. I love how the text chat includes people’s names. I love how people agree or disagree with each other in the conversation. I love actually seeing the list of participants—I tend to recognize names better than I recognize faces. ;) I love the fact that when people ask questions on the phone, everyone can hear them clearly. In real-life presentations, they’d either have to find a microphone, or shout their question to me and I’d repeat it from the stage so everyone could hear.
It would be interesting to explore how a remote presentation could feel less like a presentation (speaker, audience) and more like a conversation (participants).
Does this style work for everything? Probably not. But it works for more situations than people would think, and it’s one of the reasons why I find remote presentations surprisingly fun.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar:
Previous: Part 1: The best seats in the house
Next: Part 3: Reading the room