Have you ever watched someone sit in the front row during a presentation and then spend the entire time on their phone? That may have been me. Did that person then grab the mic during Q&A to ask a question that had already been thoroughly covered? Me again. And did that human then try to network afterward with you and other attendees, even though they were obviously not invested in the conversation? Yep, that was me too. And somehow I couldn’t figure out why you, and everyone else, reacted to me with disinterest. Huh. Why didn’t you want to be my LinkedIn friend?
This was not me all the time, but it was me enough that I'm ashamed of how I behaved. Now as a frequent speaker, I always hope that there aren’t a bunch of ‘former me’ sitting in the audience. Being a good speaker means getting into a groove and having a dialogue with the audience. And as an audience member, your participation is key to the speaker’s success. (And to every other attendee’s experience.)
So before that next speaker comes up on stage, here are some tips to being a great audience member.
Know why you’re going. People don’t just join an audience because the topic or speaker interests them; they go to participate in a community, learn something, and be seen. Knowing what you want to get out of the experience will help you achieve that. What do you want to learn? How do you want to be seen and by whom? Why are you there? You may be going for networking or community brownie points—because you are interested, or because of some obligation, but remember that the unifying element of every event is its content. Know what you want to get out of it, and you are much more likely to achieve it.
Do your homework. Presenters come prepared to an event, and you should too. Know a little about the presenter and their purpose in speaking. This will help you better set expectations for a session and decide on what you want to get from the presentation. This will also keep you from attending something that is a waste of your time.
Be present. If your mind is elsewhere, then you might as well be too. Knowing why you are there (go back to the first point) will help you to be present. And once you are there, take steps to optimize your time as an audience member. If you have hearing or vision problems and are OK with being seen by most of the audience, sit up front. If your attention gets diverted easily, then likewise grab a front row seat. If you need to leave early, (or are afraid you might), sit near a discreet exit so that you can leave without distracting others. If the format has time for a Q&A, have your questions figured out beforehand. You don’t want to lose your concentration by piecing them together during the talk. Give the speaker your undivided time, or you won’t see the desired return on this investment.
Pay attention. Being attentive to the content and flow of the presentation has huge advantages, particularly when you have done your homework and know why you are there. Those aforementioned prepared questions you have? Mark them off if they are answered by the presenter, or modify as needed. Are you there because you disagree with what is being discussed? Then take note: heckling is not acceptable, but taking a speaker to task during a Q&A is appropriate and often necessary. Just remember that they are experts and unlikely to go down easily. Pay attention to what is being said to arm yourself and your ideas.
Enjoy yourself. No, that is not a command, but, give it a go. Seats can be uncomfortable, and speakers can be boring, but if you have done your homework and have solid intentions, you will find value in the event. Chances are there is someone amazing to network with at the cocktail after-party.
If you cringed a little when you read this, then perhaps you too are guilty of being a bad audience member. Well, feel happy, if not a bit smug, because it sounds like your bad behavior is behind you. Good on you! Feel the shame and move right along. You got this, great audience member, you got this.
Claire E. Gunter is the Partner Operations Manager for Latin America at Zendesk. While business travel is rarely glamorous, she makes the most of it by trying exotic fruits and spices wherever possible. Find her on Twitter: @underceg.