The projected audience

Where do we go, when we stand in front of an audience?

Part I in a second series on the relationship between speaker/performer and audience. (The first series is here.)

In presentation workshops, participants often share the thoughts that come up before, during, or after a presentation.

I am not good at presenting.
Can I take up this much of people’s time?
I should have prepared better. I am lazy.
I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know what I am talking about.
I just know I will forget something.

What happens to many of us when we present ourselves before an audience, I think, is this. We carry thoughts around about who we are, who we want to be, who we must be. When we climb the stage, get behind a lectern or stand up in front of the class, we project these convictions onto the audience. We see our own judgments about ourselves reflected in their faces. And we feel that everything that is happening in their faces (and bodies) somehow pertains to us; because we are the ones standing here and presenting ourselves, are we not?

This is not reality. The audience is not really thinking these things about us. Who knows what anyone is thinking, and why. Could be they are thinking about a disappointing breakfast or their next holiday. But we make it into reality, and thus the audience becomes a threatening presence; our judgments about ourselves made living, breathing flesh.

(Or not so living.)

image: promotion shot for The Walking Dead (season 5, 2015), AMC

That judgmental audience is not a very reassuring image for those of us already nervous, already worrying about failure. The need arises to place a screen between ourselves and the audience, so we can concentrate and get on with the task ahead, that wretched presentation. A place where we can be, more or less, alone.

the black shell

Where do you go when all eyes are on you? In a recent presentation workshop, one participant described how it felt as if she were standing inside a black shell. Could you see the audience inside your shell, I asked. No, she answered, she was alone there. This image was in her mind’s eye during her presentation, even though she had given herself the assignment to make eye contact with her audience the whole time – which she did, too!

What a beautiful image, the black shell. It reminded me of how I used to look into the stage lights if I was nervous. The audience would just disappear in the glare.

Another participant told us how, as a teen in high school, she taught public speaking to her peers. The advice she gave her pupils was to look at a point somewhere at the other end of the room, over the heads of the audience. I too remember being taught that trick in high school.

What the shell, the glare and the vanishing point have in common, is that they are, in essence, means to cut the connection with the audience. Looking at the wall or into the lights are not presentation techniques, but ways to survive the experience.


There are other ways to survive. Often, participants in my workshops describe leaving their bodies during a presentation or performance. They describe floating somewhere above or behind themselves. I can see it happening if I pay attention. A torso moving away from the table. Eyes looking inward, or down. Standing on tiptoes, trying to fly away.

image: Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to fly untethered, February 12 1984, NASA

I used to do this, too. I left a part of me behind the lectern or microphone, to speak or sing the words I had written and rehearsed. Like an automaton. The rest of me retreated to some safer place. When I left the stage, I would re-enter my body and sensations would come rushing back in: hot cheeks, sweaty palms, hammering heart.

Isn’t it strange, how you are able to do things when only a part of you is present. Because although you feel like you have left during the presentation, a part of you has taken care of business while you were away. When the rest of you returns, after the adrenaline has been flushed from your system and the physical sensations settle down somewhat, that part will tell you what has happened while you were away. You might get snippets of memory, showing you things you said, moments you faltered, responses from the audience. The part you left behind might have answered questions from the audience, and now the answers are played on repeat, as the rest of you wonders, was that OK?, oh no I shouldn’t have said that, ah shit i forgot to say that…

When I speak or perform, I try to gently remind myself: here are my hands, here are my feet, here is my breath, here is my heart. The more tired I get, the harder this is to do. And then the audience gets more tired, too. If a speaker wears you out, it is usually because they are residing in their head, and sending out everything from there. Someone using their whole body is much more energising, much easier to connect to.


Even those of us who appear to be very successful performers; even those of us who are crafty manipulators of an audience; even those people are rarely connecting with the audience. Most of the time these performers are simply projecting themselves – better to say, an image of themselves – onto the audience. Or even forcing themselves down the audience’s throat. That, too, is nothing more than a way to survive. To deal with the fear of contact, of opening oneself, of being fully present.

image: motivational speaker Tony Robbins with an audience member
still from the Netflix trailer for the documentary I am not your guru (Joe Berlinger, 2016)

How sad I feel, when I hear how lonely people are in front of others. More so, now that I know of the audience’s capacity to carry the speaker. The possibility of creating something together. I want to share that knowledge.


Part II here.

main image: Zeiss, ‘Polarization DIC microscopy of Coca-Cola, imaged with ZEISS Axio Imager and Axiocam’