The Subtle Art of Reading an Audience


Live storytelling performance is a fickle thing; no two performances are the same, even with the same story, teller and audience.

There is an energetic conversation that is occurring between the teller and the audience, through the story. It is a three-way relationship, and each feeds and affects the other. The teller conveys, through the whole of their performance, their confidence, energy, mood and capacity to hold the attention of the audience. The audience conveys through the quality of their listening, (an incredibly underrated activity), how ready they are to hear the teller, and the story sits in the middle being changed, and changing teller and audience in response to the unfolding dynamics.

So many things go in to creating a great performance, or a terrible one. Here is my list of some of the things to consider:

Size of the audience in relation to the capacity of the space: A small room with 8 people jammed in feels like a crowd, the energy between teller and audience and amongst audience members, is not dissipated across distance. But an audience of 1000, even 2000 in the MCG, could easily feel like no one was listening at all. Put that same 1000 people into a tightly packed auditorium and the swell of energy feeding back and forth between audience and teller is palpable - whether it’s a positive or a negative charge.

The type of space: There is a reason we watch movies in a dark cushioned and curtained space. It enfolds us and keeps us focused on the story. So for your live audience ask are there any distractions in sight of the audience? Are there distracting sounds? People coming in and out during the telling? All these can take the attention of the teller and the audience, and break the spell of enchantment that allows us to live deeply within a story. (Conversely, a deeply engrossed teller and audience might not even notice a fire alarm!)

Purpose of the audience: Have the people come to hear stories? If yes great, they are a willing and warm audience. Have they come for a business meeting? You may be lucky, a story can really shine is a sea of data and logic, but you better be quick and have a point. Is the audience with you or against you?

Familiarity: Does the audience know you? Do you know them? These will feed into everyone’s relaxation levels.

What has gone before you, what is coming after? Even in a storytelling night, for example at the Moth, the audience warms up, they are more receptive, easier to laugh, be moved and more open to your story as the night goes on. Also what has happened immediately before you may need to be acknowledged or transitioned from.

These are just some of the things to think about in approaching your audience with your story. The same factors effect a speech. It also helps to understand these things, to soothe hurt feelings if an audience wasn’t as attentive as you hoped. This is not to say it’s not to do with your performance, but to say its complex, with lots of contributing factors. A practice of humility helps, for both when it works and for when it doesn’t.

These are just a few aspects of the audience impact on a story that I’ve learned over the years. Be great to hear of other’s experiences and lessons learned?