24 Communicating with a Live Audience

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to

  • explain the preparation process used to deliver a presentation,
  • describe ways to cope with mistakes and surprises during a live presentation,
  • describe important audience factors to consider in delivering an effective presentation, and
  • critique and provide constructive feedback on a professional presentation.


This chapter focuses on what to do when presentation day finally arrives. You have had the opportunity to learn about your  presentation style, mapping out an effective strategy, and making the most of presentation aids, so you should be well poised to communicate interpersonally with a live audience.


You will first learn about how to prepare to present by taking a deeper look at what you should be doing during rehearsals, considering how you’ll dress comfortably and professionally and how your setup will include contingency plans.

You will learn effective approaches to managing anxiety, such as how to cope with your body’s reaction as well as how to cope with mistakes or surprises that may pop up in the speech, with the technology or through some other external distraction.


Having an understanding of how to read your audience for positive or negative cues is important during and post presentation, and you will learn about interpreting them in scanning their body language and during Q&A.


Finally, you will have a chance to critically reflect on the delivery of a presentation by learning about how to do a self-analysis, as well as give and receive constructive verbal and non-verbal feedback.

Preparing to Present


To deliver your presentation to the best of your ability, and to reduce your nerves once you take the stage, you need to practise by rehearsing. As you do, try to identify the weaknesses in your delivery to improve on them. For example, do you often mis-speak the same words (e.g., pacific for specific; ax for ask) or do your hands or feet fidget? Use your practice time to focus on correcting these issues. These sessions should help you get comfortable and help you remember what you want to say without having to constantly refer to notes.


Try practising in front of a mirror, or even recording yourself speaking to a camera and playing it back. It’s also helpful to get feedback from a supportive audience at this stage. Perhaps a few family members or friends could watch you give your presentation and provide some feedback.

If at all possible, access the room where you will be presenting. This way you can get a feel for its setup and decide how you will stand or move during your presentation.


Dress for Success

While there are no definitive guidelines for how you should dress for your presentation, your appearance is an important part of your audience’s first impression. If you want them to take you seriously, you’ll need to look the part. While you don’t have to wear a suit each time you present, there are some scenarios where this would be expected; for example, if you are presenting to a corporate audience who wear suits to work, you should do the same. You should dress one step above your audience. If your audience is going to be dressed casually in shorts and jeans, then wear nice casual clothing such as a pair of pressed slacks and a collared shirt or blouse. If your audience is going to be wearing business casual attire, then you should wear a dress or a suit.


Another general rule is avoid distractions in your appearance. Overly tight or revealing garments, over-the-top hairstyles or makeup or jangling jewelry can distract your audience’s attention from your message.


Setting Up Your Environment

Depending on the circumstances of your speech or presentation, you may have some choices to make about the environment. Perhaps you have a choice of meeting rooms that you can use, or, perhaps you have only one option.


If you have some flexibility, it is helpful to think about what sort of environment would best help you get across your message across. For example, if you are running a workshop, you might want to assemble participants in a circle to encourage collaboration and discussion. If you are holding a webinar, you’ll need a quiet location with a strong Internet connection and a computer system. It is imperative that you think about what facilities you need well before the day of your presentation arrives. Arriving to find that the equipment you expected isn’t available is not a nice surprise for even the most experienced speaker!


If you have access to the location beforehand, you may need to move tables or chairs around to get things just the way you want them. You might choose to have a podium brought in, if you are aiming for a formal feel, for example, or you may need to position your flip chart. Double check that you have all the equipment you need, from whiteboard markers to speakers. It is far better if you can get comfortable with the room before your audience arrives, as this will make you feel more prepared and less nervous.


If you are using technology to support your presentation (i.e., PowerPoint slides or a projector), test everything before you begin. Do a microphone check and test its volume, view your slides on the computer you will be using, check any weblinks, play videos to test their sound, or make a call to test the phone connection prior to your teleconference. Your audience will get restless quickly if they arrive and are expected to wait while you fix a technical problem. This will also make you seem disorganized and hurt your credibility as an authoritative speaker.


Contingency Planning

Well before the day of your presentation, ask yourself, What could go wrong? This might sound like a way for a novice presenter to stress oneself out, but it can actually be very helpful. If you anticipate the worst-case scenario and are prepared for it, problems on the day of your presentation are less likely to bother you.

Many of the possible problems can be avoided with preparation. Make sure you have notes with you in case you need them. Dress professionally so that you feel good about how you are presenting yourself. Getting there early to set up and test the equipment will prevent many technical issues, but having a handout with you will make you feel

even more comfortable in case you have problems with your slides. Bring a bottle of water in case your throat becomes dry or you need a moment to pause.


Most other problems can be prevented with practice. Rehearse so that you are not reliant on your notes. This way, if a note card goes missing, it’s no big deal. During your rehearsals you’ll get used to pacing yourself, pausing for breath, and the timing of your speech so that this comes more naturally once you get onstage.

During the Presentation

Managing Anxiety

Studies have been done to assess how nervous or stressful people typically get during presentations, by examining people’s physiological responses at three intervals: one minute before the presentation, the first minute of the speech, and the last minute of the speech. They discovered that nervousness usually peaked at the anticipation stage that occurs one minute before the presentation. They further found that as the speech progresses, nervousness tends to go down. Here are some things you can do to help you manage your anxiety before the presentation:

  • Practice/rehearse in similar conditions/setting as your speech
  • Be organized
  • Think positively
  • Analyze your audience
  • Adapt your language to speaking style

During the presentation itself, there are four main areas where you can focus attention in order to manage your anxiety:

  1. Your body’s reaction
  2. Attention to the audience
  3. Keeping a sense of humour
  4. Common stress management techniques

Your Body’s Reaction

Physical movement helps to channel some of the excess energy that your body produces in response to anxiety. If at all possible, move around the front of the room rather than remaining imprisoned behind the lectern or gripping it for dear life (avoid pacing nervously from side to side, however). Move closer to the audience and then stop for a moment. If you are afraid that moving away from the lectern will reveal your shaking hands, use note cards rather than a sheet of paper for your outline. Note cards do not quiver like paper, and they provide you with something to do with your hands. Other options include vocal warm-ups right before your speech, having water (preferably in a non-spillable bottle with a spout) nearby for dry mouth, and doing a few stretches before going on stage.


Deep breathing will help to counteract the effects of excess adrenaline. You can place cues or symbols in your notes, such as “slow down” or ☺, that remind you to pause and breathe during points in your speech. It is also a good idea to pause a moment before you get started to set an appropriate pace from the onset. Look at your audience and smile. It is a reflex for some of your audience members to smile back. Those smiles will reassure you that your audience members are friendly.


Attention to the Audience

During your speech, make a point of establishing direct eye contact with your audience members. By looking at individuals, you establish a series of one-to-one contacts similar to interpersonal communication. An audience becomes much less threatening when you think of them not as an anonymous mass but as a collection of individuals.


A gentleman once shared his worst speaking experience: Right before the start of his speech, he reached the front of the room and forgot everything he was supposed to say. When asked what he saw when he was in the front of the room, he gave a quizzical look and responded, “I didn’t see anything. All I remember is a mental image of me up there in the front of the room blowing it.” Speaking anxiety becomes more intense if you focus on yourself rather than concentrate on your audience and your material.

Keeping a Sense of Humour

No matter how well we plan, unexpected things happen. That fact is what makes the public speaking situation so interesting. When the unexpected happens to you, do not let it rattle you. At the end of a class period late in the afternoon of a long day, a student raised her hand and asked the professor if he knew that he was wearing two different coloured shoes, one black and one blue. He looked down and saw that she was right; his shoes did not match. He laughed at himself, complimented the student on her observational abilities, and moved on with the important thing, the material he had to deliver.


Stress Management Techniques

Even when we use positive thinking and are well prepared, some of us still feel a great deal of anxiety about public speaking. When that is the case, it can be more helpful to use stress management than to try to make the anxiety go away.

Here are two main tools that can help:

  • Visualization: imagining the details of what a successful speech would look and sound like from beginning to end; a way of hypnotizing yourself into positive thinking by using your mind’s eye to make success real.
  • Systematic desensitization: Gradual exposure to the thing that causes fear—in this case, giving a speech—can ultimately lead to decreased anxiety. Basically, the more practice you get speaking in front of people, the less fear and anxiety you’ll have about public speaking. Organizations like Toastmasters that help people confront their fears by providing a supportive environment to learn and practise is a good option if you have a true phobia around presenting or public speaking.


Using a Microphone

If you are using a microphone during your speech, there are a few cautions to be aware of. First, make sure you do a sound check and that you know how the microphone works—how to turn it on and off, how to mute it, and how to raise or lower it. If possible, have it positioned to the height you need before you go onstage. Make sure the microphone does not block your face.


If you will be using a clip-on microphone (called a lavaliere mic), you’ll need to wear something with a lapel or collar that it can be clipped to. Make sure your hair and jewelery are out of the way to avoid rustling noises, and place the microphone 8 to 10 inches below your chin.


Finally, do not get too close to the microphone. Many people stand too close to the mic and end up hunched over it, creating bad posture and an uncomfortable position. If you get too close, the mic will pick up your breathing as well as your words and can also create that screeching feedback that will make your audience jump in their seats. Doing a sound check and getting comfortable with the equipment before you go onstage will prevent the majority of errors when using a microphone.


Coping with Mistakes and Surprises

Even the most prepared speaker will encounter unexpected challenges from time to time. Here are a few strategies for combating the unexpected in your own presentations.


Speech Content Issues

What if a note card goes missing or you skip important information from the beginning of your speech? While situations like these might seem like the worst nightmare of a novice public speaker, they can be easily overcome. Pause for a moment to think about what to do. Is it important to include the missing information, or can it be omitted without hindering the audience’s ability to understand your speech? If it needs to be included, does the information fit better now or in a later segment? If you can move on without the missing element, that is often the best choice, but pausing for a few seconds to decide will be less distracting to the audience than sputtering through a few “ums” and “uhs.” Situations like these demonstrate why it’s a good idea to have a glass of water with you when you speak. Pausing for a moment to take a sip of water is a perfectly natural movement, so the audience may not even notice that anything is amiss.


Technical Difficulties

Technology has become a very useful aid in public speaking, allowing us to use audio or video clips, presentation software, or direct links to websites. But it does break down occasionally! Web servers go offline, files will not download, or media contents are incompatible with the computer in the presentation room. Always have a backup plan in case of technical difficulties. As you develop your speech and visual aids, think through what you will do if you cannot show a particular graph or if your presentation slides are garbled. Your beautifully prepared chart may be superior to the verbal description you can provide. Your ability to provide a succinct verbal description when technology fails will give your audience the information they need and keep your speech moving forward.

External Distractions

Unfortunately, one thing that you can’t control during your speech is audience etiquette, but you can decide how to react to it. Inevitably, an audience member will walk in late, a cell phone will ring, or a car alarm will go off outside. If you are interrupted by external events like these, it is often useful and sometimes necessary to pause and wait so that you can regain the audience’s attention.


Whatever the event, maintain your composure. Do not get upset or angry about these glitches. If you keep your cool and quickly implement a “plan B” for moving forward, your audience will be impressed.


Reading Your Audience

Recognizing your audience’s mood by observing their body language can help you adjust your message and see who agrees with you, who doesn’t, and who is still deciding. With this information, you can direct your attention—including eye contact and questions—to the areas of the room where they can have the most impact.

As the speaker, you are conscious that you are being observed. But your audience members probably don’t think of themselves as being observed, so their body language will be easy to read.


Handling Q&A

Question-and-answer sessions can be trickier to manage than the presentation itself. You can prepare for and rehearse the presentation, but audience members could ask a question you hadn’t considered or don’t know how to answer. There are three important elements to think about when incorporating Q&A’s as part of your presentation:


Audience Expectations

At the beginning of your speech, give the audience a little bit of information about who you are and what your expertise on the subject is. Once they know what you do (and what you know), it will be easier for the audience to align their questions with your area of expertise—and for you to bow out of answering questions that are outside of your area.


Timing of Q&A’s

Questions are easier to manage when you are expecting them. Unless you are part of a panel, meeting, or teleconference, it is probably easier to let the audience know that you will take questions at the end of your presentation. This way you can avoid interruptions to your speech that can distract you and cause you to lose time. If audience members interrupt during your talk, you can then ask them politely to hold on to their question until the Q&A session at the end.


Knowing How to Respond

Never pretend that you know the answer to a question if you don’t. The audience will pick up on it! Instead, calmly apologize and say that the question is outside of the scope of your knowledge but that you’d be happy to find out after the presentation (or, suggest some resources where the person could find out for themselves).


If you are uncertain about how to answer a question, say something like “That’s really interesting. Could you elaborate on that?” This will make the audience member feel good because they have asked an interesting question, and it will give you a moment to comprehend what they are asking.


Sometimes presenters rush to answer a question because they are nervous or want to impress. Pause for a moment, before you begin your answer, to think about what you want to say. This will help you to avoid misinterpreting the question, or taking offense to a question that is not intended that way.


A final tip is to be cautious about how you answer, so that you don’t offend your audience. You are presenting on a topic because you are knowledgeable about it, but your audience is not. It is important not to make the audience feel inferior because there are things that they don’t know. Avoid comments such as “Oh, yes, it’s really easy to do that…” Instead, say something like “Yes, that can be tricky. I would recommend…” Also, avoid a bossy tone. For example, phrase your response with “What I find helpful is…” rather than “What you should do is…”

Critiquing a Presentation


It is often said that we are our own worst critic. Many people are hard on themselves and may exaggerate how poorly a speech or presentation went. Other times, there’s not much exaggeration. In both cases it helps to do a post examination of your performance as presenter.


To provide a slightly more objective approach to analyzing the delivery of your speech or presentation, it may be useful to refer back to what we saw in chapter 1 related to what makes a good speech or presenter. Namely, did you


  • make the most of your unique voice? Did the audience seem to understand you?
  • make the most of using body language? Did your body confidently support what you were saying?
  • use a coherent structure? Did the audience seem to make sense of your presentation? Was it logical?
  • show enthusiasm? Did you show the audience you cared about your presentation?
  • demonstrate expertise? Did you show your credibility by citing reliable sources and making a distinction between facts and your opinion?
  • show you practised and prepared? Did your confidence show because you implemented a plan that included sufficient rehearsal, contingency plans, and other success strategies?


Honestly asking yourself these questions with the intention of uncovering your strengths and weaknesses should help you to become a better presenter. While it is important to review other kinds of feedback, whether from the audience, your peers, or an instructor, it is also useful to have a realistic understanding of your own performance. This understanding is part of gaining experience and improving as a presenter.


Giving Feedback

In chapter 1 we reviewed the idea that speakers and audiences can’t exist without one another. From the perspective of a speaker, the audience members are vital in helping him or her to understand how they are doing both during and after the presentation. Knowing what it feels like to be on stage is often motivation enough for many people to give non-verbal feedback or verbal feedback.

Non-Verbal Feedback

Let us now shift our focus from effective public speaking skills to effective listening. Boothman (2008) recommends listening with your whole body, not just your ears. Consider how confident you would feel speaking to a room full of people with their eyes closed, arms and legs crossed, and bodies bent in slouches. These listeners are presenting non-verbal cues communicating that they are uninterested and unimpressed. Meanwhile, a listener sitting up straight, facing you with an intent look on his face, is more likely to offer reassurance that the speaker’s words are being understood.

Eye contact is another non-verbal cue to the speaker that you are paying attention. You don’t want to be bug-eyed and unblinking; the speaker might assume there is a tiger behind her and begin to panic as you seem to be doing. However, attentive eye contact can indicate you are listening and help you to stay focused too. There are some cultures where maintaining eye contact would cause discomfort, so keep that in mind. Also, you may be someone who listens better with eyes closed to visualize what is being said. This can be difficult for a speaker to recognize, so if this is you, consider incorporating one of the following non-verbals while you listen with eyes closed.

Nodding your head affirmatively, making backchannel responses such as “Yes,” “Umhum,” or “OK” can help the speaker gauge your interest. Even the speed of your head nod can signal your level of patience or understanding (Pease & Pease, 2006). Leaning in as a listener is far more encouraging than slumping in your seat. Miller (1994) suggests the “listener’s lean” demonstrates “ultimate interest. This joyous feedback is reflexive. It physically endorses our communiqué.” Nevertheless, sending too many non-verbal responses to the speaker can go wrong, too. After all, a conference room full of people shifting in their seats and nodding their heads may translate as a restless audience that the speaker needs to recapture.

Verbal Feedback

While speakers sometimes want all questions held until the end of a presentation, asking questions when the opportunity presents itself can help you as a listener. For one, you have to listen in order to be able to ask a question. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions (“What do you think about….?” rather than “We should do …, right?”). You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?” These can help your comprehension while also offer the speaker feedback. When asking questions, approach the speaker in a positive, non-threatening way. A good listener doesn’t seek to put the speaker on the defensive. You want to demonstrate your objectivity and willingness to listen to the speaker’s response.

Finally, paraphrasing what has been said in your interactions with the speaker can be another useful tool for a good listener. Imagine the difference if, before you respond to an upset colleague, you take a moment to say, “I understand you are disappointed we didn’t consult you before moving forward with the product release…” before you say, “we didn’t have time to get everyone’s input.” Reflecting back the speaker’s point of view before responding allows the speaker to know you were listening and helps foster trust that everyone’s voice is being heard.

Non-Verbal Feedback (constructive) Verbal Feedback (constructive)
Listen with whole body Ask open-ended questions
Use appropriate eye contact Questions confirm understanding of message
Nod affirmatively (mmm hmm, yes, OK) Ask clarifying questions (can you give an example of/did you mean…)
Use listener’s lean Use paraphrasing to demonstrate accurate understanding
Non-Verbal Feedback (not constructive) Verbal Feedback (not constructive)
Closed body position Asking closed questions
No eye contact Asking questions that don’t relate to speaker’s message
Inattentive, distracted (playing with phones, engaging in side conversations etc.) Asking rhetorical questions
Slumping, yawning Making your own speech instead of asking a question
Table 3.4.1 Constructive vs Not Constructive Verbal and Non-Verbal Feedback

Receiving Feedback

Being open to receiving feedback is the only way to have a better picture of your performance as a presenter or speaker. Combining self-analysis with the feedback of your audience or peers is your opportunity to better understand your strengths as a presenter and what resonated well with your audience.


It may be a bit more uncomfortable to look at things that did not go well or receive feedback that’s judgemental, biased, or otherwise laden with emotion. In the first chapter of this module, you learned about self-awareness. When receiving and making sense of feedback, it is very important to be self-aware and honest with yourself. This honesty will help you distinguish between an environmental situation, a situation that lies with the audience member, or a situation with the presenter.


In this chapter you learned about useful tools such as rehearsing, dressing appropriately, and having a contingency plan that help you prepare to present to a live audience. You examined approaches that would be useful during the presentation itself, such as keeping a good sense of humour and attention on your audience to manage anxiety, and what steps to take for a critical review afterwards to close the feedback loop.

Further Reading and Links

If you would like to read more about finding, using, and attributing Creative Commons–licensed materials, see the following sites:


Boothman, N. (2008). How to make people like you in 90 seconds or less. NY: Workman Publishing.

Miller, C. (1994). The empowered communicator: Keys to unlocking an audience. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Books.

Attribution Statement (Communicating with a Live Audience)

This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:

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