Talking to an Invisible Audience

by | Nov 8, 2010

I was recently engaged to do some journalistic work for an event, which included writing an event summary and conducting a series of video interviews with speakers and delegates to be used post-event.

I was interested to find that one of the scheduled presentations at this event was to be delivered remotely by a speaker in the USA. The technical set up was nice and simple: a screen displaying the slides, a Skype call between the presenter and an organiser in the conference room, speakers to amplify his voice and a microphone capable of picking up voices from around the room so the audience could ask questions. The session was recorded as a screencast and facilitated by one of the organisers, who repeated questions where necessary and effectively provided an audio description for the speaker.

From an audience perspective, this was an interesting experience. The session was designed to be interactive, with the presenter allowing plenty of time for questions and discussion between each slide. However, because the Skype call was purely audio, rather than a video call, the speaker and the audience did not have a normal visual relationship. At the beginning, this created the slightly uncomfortable feeling that the talk was falling flat, even though it definitely was not. However, the speaker had to repeatedly ask if there were any questions after each slide and the audience had to remain silent for a period to communicate that there were not – or all shake their heads at the facilitator so that he could relay this verbally before the speaker could continue. Towards the end the audience seemed to get into the swing of interrupting and asking questions, but at the beginning I was certainly very aware that the lack of visual cues between the speaker and the audience was changing the dynamic of the presentation and making it much more difficult for the speaker to build a rapport with the audience.

A lot of the experimental work I have been involved with recently has looked at communicating a presentation to a dispersed remote audience using different tools, whilst the speaker is focused on a physical audience in front of them. Live video streaming means that we can transmit the normal visual cues in one direction (presenter to audience), but communication in the reverse direction is mostly text-based and is often filtered through a facilitator to reach a speaker or read in retrospect. This does not necessarily help the speaker to adjust their tone and presentation in real time in the same way as they can respond to the body language of a physical audience. When the reverse situation occurs, whereby the audience is collected together and the speaker is remote, there is the potential to use video calling to more effectively provide both parties with real time visual responses, provided sufficient bandwidth is available. However, even in this situation, there could still be a dispersed remote audience who’s body language and responses are unrepresented.

As amplifying events becomes more widespread and we start to move towards more truly hybrid events, speakers will need to become more aware of how they communicate with a partially invisible audience. Alternatively, event amplifiers and event organisers may need to develop techniques which supplement the lack of visual cues, enabling the speaker to respond more interactively with their full audience. I know from a past life as a tour guide that bonding with an audience and reading their reactions is vital if you want to give an engaging talk, so will be interested to study this area further to see if there are any technological solutions we could employ or any guidance which could be developed for speakers.

Of course, there are practical advantages to remote presentations – in this case the audience was amused to hear the speaker scrambling to check his own bookshelf to find a book he wanted to recommend. This facility to immediately access relevant materials close to hand could be incredibly liberating to a speaker and enhance a presentation beyond the pre-prepared notes so it becomes a reaction to the audience, rather than a broadcast object.
Photo Credit: Matthew Tabor.
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