E is for empathy

When I was twenty-five clasped-hands-541849__180years old, I was working with a major training organization and was scheduled to speak at a local service club.
When I arrived at the auditorium, I was stunned as I walked into the room and looked around at the audience. The entire audience was comprised of males that looked quite old.
The plan was to have a dinner before I was scheduled to take the stage, so I sat at the head table with my host and some delegates. During the dinner, I asked my host what the average age of the audience members was, and he told me the average age was 84. Now, that wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it weren’t for the topic I had prepared for my talk: “GOAL SETTING!”
Throughout the dinner, I was trying to come up with ideas for a talk that would be relevant to this group of highly distinguished, profoundly experienced and very old men. I could come up with nothing, so I knew I had to go with my originally prepared plan and speak about goal setting.
After dinner, my host stepped up to the podium and, reading the introduction I had provided him, he brought me to the stage with “…and now, here to speak to us about setting and achieving goals, please welcome Steve Lowell.” With those words, and to frail applause, I stepped up to the podium and began by asking, “By a show of hands, how many of you have some clearly defined goals for your life?”
As soon as I finished asking the question, I heard someone in the front row reply, “My goal is to not die before the end of this presentation!”
I’ve never spoken in a situation with less of a connection to my audience than on that evening. In retrospect, the problem is pretty obvious. I had no idea who my audience was before I got there, therefore, I wasn’t able to empathize with them in order to address their interests or stay at their level and pace.
As a speaker, you need to understand the mindset and temperament of your audience in order to speak with them and not at them. This understanding is called empathy, the ability to be conscious of, and have compassion for, the emotional and intellectual state of your audience.
With empathy for your audience, you can tailor your delivery, and sometimes even your content, to resonate with your audience so they can relate to you as a speaker. In return, they empathize with you.
As you’re speaking, be aware of the dominant posture of your audience. There’s valuable information being shared with you from your audience, and recognizing that information can help guide you into giving the best presentation you can.
In his book, Winning Body Language, Mark Bowden describes eight levels of “tension” that really define the different mental, physical and emotional postures we humans can take. The eight levels of tension are: No Tension, Relaxed, Neutral, Deliberate, Alert, Agitated, Entranced and Total Tension.
We need not dissect each level of tension. Suffice it to say that, as a speaker, as you recognize the dominant mental, physical and emotional posture of your audience, you can first match it, in order to gain their trust, and then adjust your tension state as you progress, in order to lead your audience into whatever new state you wish.
Of course, it’s impossible to adjust to everyone’s individual level, but you can get a feel for the overall mood of the room, and use your discernment to adjust to it. Watch for body language indicators, such as facial expression, nodding or shaking heads, yawning, laughing, leaning forward, slouching, and the crossing of the arms or the checking of cell phones.
These signals help you estimate the dominant posture (tension state) of your audience, and let you adjust your delivery accordingly, in order to form a closer bond.
Recently, I had an early morning speaking engagement with a Chamber of Commerce group near Ottawa, Canada. During the breakfast, before I was scheduled to speak, I tried to get a feel for the dominant posture in the room. I watched the people carefully, spoke to some individually, and also listened to conversations around me, as I tried to get a read on the dominant tension state.
I did this because I knew I was going to be the first speaker, and as the first speaker, part of my job is to make the audience feel like they’re glad they came, and also to entice them to stick around for the rest of the morning.
As I began my presentation, I could tell within a very short time that I had misread the group’s tension state. My energy level on the stage was too high for them to form that solid bond with me right off the bat. There were no nodding heads, just a lot of blank stares. Most audience members were sitting back in their chairs, some slouching, some with their arms crossed. Many of them were looking straight at me in a semi-catatonic trance.
In reading these signs from my audience, I immediately changed my delivery. I slowed my pace, softened my voice and tempered my movements just a little, all in order to match the dominant posture of the room. I asked a few rhetorical questions to see if I could get some of them nodding their heads, and I made deliberate eye contact with as many people as I could, all the while toning down my gesturing to ensure that my physicality on the stage more closely matched their physicality, giving us the ability to fall in sync with each other from an energy standpoint.
Before long, I could see many of them tilting their heads just slightly showing me an ear, which told me that they we listening. I noticed that many of them moved forward in their seats, and some began taking notes. After a few minutes, I had earned their trust and attention, and I was able to then gradually elevate my energy and bring them with me. This is often referred to as “pacing and leading.”
Without that empathy for my audience, I would never have captured their attention and brought them on the journey I wanted to lead them on.
So, what’s the lesson? Know who your audience is, and be aware of their feedback so you can match their dominant posture and then lead them to your desired tension state.

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