Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dealing with inactive listeners – my experiences

For presenters dealing with inactive listeners is one of the biggest challenges and process of brining back inactive listeners to the active state is an art in its own right. For some campus teachers this is a night mare and at the end of the day you find them depressed and really disturbed after a teaching session, when they feel that they had not succeeded in getting there point across to the audience. Some of the seasoned profs have chosen either of the two extremes, one extreme group, believes that, whatever they say they expect the students to listen or at least pretend to be listening by nodding, having eye contact and all, the other extreme group doesn’t really care about the audience at all and just preach whatever they want and doesn’t really care if they had got their point across or not.

The objective of this piece of writing is to make the presenter to be more objective in their expectations and analysis of there audience and thereby becoming more successful in getting there message across to their audience.

The Four major reasons for people seeming to be or really being inactive listeners

  1. Environment
  2. Cultural differences
  3. Incompetence of presenter
  4. Inherent human weaknesses


Awareness of the environment in which you are doing the presentation is of utmost importance; you should know who is participating in the session and have a general idea about what would be their knowledge in the topic that you are talking about.

Further more consider the physical factors like the following, is the stage properly organized? Is the projected content visible to everyone in the audience? Is the air-conditioning temperature at appropriate level? If using a microphone check and see if it’s correct? etc

When talking about the environment setup my mind goes back to my school days, when I was a senior student at college I used to go to my primary school to teach the kids to play chess, incidentally I was teaching in the same class that I had studied about ten years before. I was teaching the kids and suddenly I noticed a student, who was sitting in the same seat I used to sit years before, being the worst listener. I walked behind his seat casually and looked out of the window to know what was distracting him and then I remembered that my teacher, when I was the kid in that seat, always made it a point to have the window curtains down before she started the class and never told me the reason why it should be closed. At that time I can remember that this was something I hated to do, because the class was overlooking a lush green grass yard which was the playing ground for the monkeys and I wanted to watch them and closing the curtain was preventing me from doing what I liked, but only when I stood in the shoes of a teacher I realized her wisdom and from that day onwards I too made it a point to have the curtains down in that classroom before I started the sessions.


Understanding the cultural behavioral attitude of people is very important to understand the listeners. Just because a person does not look into the presenter’s eye that does not mean that the particular person is not listening to you.

A classic example of this happened on my first international class I did, I had audiences from an array of communities and there were a few ladies from cultures where they are not used to look in to the eyes of a man. I noticed that they never looked up at me and were focusing on the computer in front of them or at the book. Initially I was worried as I was clueless as I was not sure if they had understood what I was talking about. I played a bit of a mind game with them to get them out of there usual behavior. I first got them to look at the content that was being projected on the screen, by showing irresistible content which is pertinent to the audience. This was a confidence building exercise, although it was a slow process I managed to bring them to a state where they lifted the face to look at the projector and at this time I showed a lot of energy in my presentation and in a few minutes time, when they had enough confidence in my behavior they were behaving like any other audience. The lesson learnt was that when it comes to measuring listeners, we should not use the common measurement for all people; we should appreciate the uniqueness of each individual.

Incompetence of Speaker

This has two major categories, one where you find the speaker is incompetent due to his lack of knowledge in the topic he is speaking about or lack of preparation, the second major category is where the audience has a premature feeling that the speaker is incompetent due to his outer look or age.

In order to convince that the presenter has enough competence the presenter will have to make sufficient preparation on the areas he is going to talk about and show a lot of energy and commitment, which could make the audience, change their initial perception on the presenter.

I can remember on a few occasions when I was introduced as an expert in a certain domain the people looked at me in a very sarcastic way because of my age, any how I knew this was the main challenge that I will have to face and was ready for it. Like a typical test batsman I would put the head down and bat and the only way in which I could show that I could prove myself was my proving that I have the knowledge although at a lesser age than a typical expert.

Inherent Weaknesses

Be informed that any human being will loose focus when you are doing a long session and its quiet natural for people to switch off. Think from the perspective of the listener if you were the listener how long will you be able to keep focus on a single task. The most challenging thing for a presenter is to master the art of facilitating the return of an inactive listener or a listener who had lost focus, when you find that a listener is making an effort to return to the presentation, make it a bit easy by doing a quick recap on what you are doing or talking about. Especially if you had given a hand out point out the slide you are now in.

Most of the reasoning for the inactive listening resolves around the above four categories.

After identifying the problem we should consider the possible solutions;

I provide below a few handy tips to minimize inactive listening.


Hint 1:

Drive the entire audience as a team; use each others energy to sustain the interest among the audiences.

Hint 2:

Relate to things people closely associate with, for example there job.

Hint 3:

Use the natural competitive instinct of people.

Hint 4:

Ask question that you know the users know the answer to ease them up and make them to be more at home.

Hint 5:

Use Humor, but remember this should be good clean humor and always know that not all people are 100% receptive to humor. Refrain using humor involving race, colour, religion and gender.

Hint 6:

Encourage the right type of participation, when someone asks the right type of question cohesive to the content you are talking about, explain the question to the audience and then answer the question.

Hint 7:

Spur up some irresistible topic which will make them get involved.

Hint 8:

Spring a few surprises relevant to the content.

Hint 9:

Manage the time well.

Hint 10:

Make it look as if the thing that you are talking about is the simplest thing on the planet. Specially, when you want to make a product presentation or a teaching lesson.

*** Incidentally the above was the main content one of the presentations I did to my colleagues at office at their own request and I can feel that it had made a paradigm shift in the way they did and dealt with people during the presentation.

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