There is Only One Audience in the World: How to Create a Supportive Audience

July 2008

by Sandra Zimmer

My public speaking students ask, “What if I speak to an audience that is hostile? How do I deal with that?” This question usually comes up after they have transformed a great deal of stage fright and are feeling very comfortable at the center of attention in their class group. The implication of the question is how to protect themselves from people who don’t love, respect and accept them.  At the root of this question is a judgment about the audience members. Their assumption is that people in the audience will treat them disrespectfully and even worse attack them outright.

I tell them that there is only one audience in the world – that is the audience that you create by how you relate to them.  People are mostly alike.  For the most part, they care about other people and want to be supportive. And, if they are treated with respect and honesty, they respond in kind.  Audiences are the same way. If you step up to the podium and open to receive them, they are compelled to pay attention and to support you. 

It’s all in how you look at them, literally how you look at them.  If you tense up to protect yourself from attack, you unconsciously invite them to attack you. You are looking at them as dangerous, and they will sense that.  But if you look at them through the eyes of love and acceptance, they will sense that and give supportive attention back to you. You literally create a supportive audience by being there to support them.

I recommend and teach the use of soft eyes.  That is, look softly at your audience members.  Land your eyes gently on one person at a time, taking in a sense of energy from each individual you make eye contact with.  I call this “receiving” the audience. It allows you to be with them rather than talk at them. Instead of looking at them with hard-focused eyes, open yourself to take in their attention, love and support.  Because you are looking with friendly, soft eyes, people are instantly transformed and respond in kind.

Soft eye connection gives others permission to be who they are with whatever feelings and thoughts they currently have.  When people are given permission to feel their feelings and think their real thoughts, they relax and become kinder and more open.  If you are willing to take the risk to be open with your audience, they will be open with you.

So for instance, if you are sharing some bad news with a group of stakeholders, and you can be honest about the situation and can give them permission to be upset about it, then that permission will allow them to express their displeasure.  If you resist, they will stay angry. If you allow their feelings to be expressed and you don’t take it personally, they calm down.