Audience Body Language

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011 , , 2 comments

audience-body-languageWhat you can learn from the body language of your audience?

If you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about presenting, you’ve probably thought at some point about body language. Much has been written about how presenters should hold themselves; how they should gesture; and where they should position themselves in front of the audience. Yet there is a whole untapped resource in the field of body language that could prove extremely valuable to a presenter: the body language of the audience.

Observing your audience can be an extremely useful way to gauge interest levels during your presentation. If you have an idea of what gets their attention – and what offends or bores them – then you’ve not only got a good idea of how effective your content is, but a clear picture of how to engage with audience members from that point on.

So, how can presenters obtain, and work with, this kind of information?

How to get the information

The best way to get these reports is to ask people on your team who aren’t actually presenting to make the observations. These people are usually members of the bid team, or perhaps people who have worked on creating the presentation. The key point is that they should have seen the presentation before, and so not be distracted by the content. These ‘cast members’ are going to be watching the audience, not the presentation.

Organise the seating plan so that the audience are sandwiched between the screen and these cast members, so that the cast can watch the audience members without the audience being aware. This ensures that they have a clear view, and that audience members’ behaviour will not be influenced by the knowledge that they are being watched.

Cast members should look out for certain types of behaviour and note where exactly in the presentation these behaviours take place, so that they can later make accurate comments on what interested or bored the audience.

Audience-Body-Language-AWhat to look for

A lot of the signals given off by body language are picked up intuitively, but here are some basic things to look out for:

Facial Expressions
These are fairly self-explanatory. You might not always have a clear view of the audience’s faces, but facial expressions can be extremely useful to determine audience reactions.

Leaning forwards
A subconscious move to lean forwards towards the presenter is a classic indicator of interest. An audience member leaning back in his or her chair can indicate boredom.

Crossing of arms
Crossing the arms can be a defensive signal, or it can indicate disagreement. Audiences reacting in this way could be reacting to a touchy subject, or something that your audience are really not happy with.

What is worth noting is that an audience member exhibiting any of the above actions is not always giving off these subconscious signals. If someone sits with their arms crossed throughout the whole presentation, it does not necessarily mean that are offended by everything the presenter has said – this could simply be their preferred mode of comfort. And if someone else keeps jiggling around in their chair in an attempt to get comfortable, it does not necessarily indicate anything other than that perhaps your host should invest in some comfier seats.

Observers are looking for unconscious movements and changes in attitude. Exercise a bit of common sense, take actions in context, and observe the behaviour of the group as a whole to get a more accurate representation of the response to your presentation.

How to use the information

After the presentation, you can use these notes to go through and identify the audience’s reaction to different sections. Comments like, “At slide 5 they were all really interested,” or “Most of them disengaged at slide 12” help you identify which parts of your presentation got your audience’s attention.  This can give you key indicators of what works in your presentation – and what your audience is interested in.

At this point, you can use this information to your advantage. If the presentation is, for example, a corporate sales presentation that will be delivered multiple times, you can use this feedback to tailor your content and get a more effective presentation. If it’s a specific bid presentation, e.g. for a particular sales pitch or to a specific investor, you can use knowledge of what engaged your audience members to target your follow up. Know that they’re really interested in last year’s sales figures? Send them over in more detail. Think that they were bored by your process description? Don’t spend as much time on this in future communication.


If you have the manpower to make these observations, do so. Every presenter knows that obtaining as much information about their audience as possible is a great way to aid success, and the audience’s reaction to your presentation will provide you with a lot of this information. Use this information wisely, and your presentation or bid will be that bit more effective.

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2 Comments to Audience Body Language

  1. #1

    Jim Harvey

    8:26 am, September 27th, 2011

    Hmmm, M62 Guys,

    I love the website and all of the original thinking here, but I think this is a step too far. Reading body language is a ‘science’ with as much credibility as graphology and astrology. I.e. none that will help most of us understand any more about the state of mind of our audience.

    One thing that is sure, is that body language may be a sign of a response to something that the presenter has said, but you’ll never know what, precisely, unless you ask. And then you’ll only get the edited response.

    So having ‘observers’ planted in the audience seems like a complete waste of time and money, why not leave it to the people on the stage who can see their faces, not just the back of their heads. And if they think they see a ‘reaction’ they can ask…

    ‘John, you smiled, I’m wondering, is there something you’d like to suggest here…’

    Which also gives us the opportunity to listen to the audience and begin to turn a presentation into a dialogue.


    Jim Harvey

  2. #2

    Jessica Pyne

    11:09 am, November 8th, 2011

    Hi Jim, thanks for the comment.

    Following our tips is not intended to be an exact science – but as a general indication of how a presentation is going, picking up on these signals as an audience can be very useful to presenters. Presenters will never be able to tell what exactly their audience members are thinking, but will be able to tell if, for example, everyone is bored by one section and completely disengaging with the content.

    And as the observers will often be in the room anyway – either in case they need to answer a specific question, or as they have been involved with the content (see our Sales Presentation Bid Team article for examples), this would not prove a waste of time for them – in fact, it gives them something useful to do. And the presenter will be unable to present effectively whilst simultaneously studying his audience, as he should be focusing on the message and relating to the audience.

    Of course, ultimately, you want a sales presentation to end in a conversation with your audience, but it is equally important to get your messages across successfully. And if having the unoccupied people in the room give a general indication of your audience’s responses will help you understand how your message has been received, then that can only be a good thing.