I want my share

Years ago, Barbara Johns, a woman who taught my children public speaking, addressed an audience of parents and children about the art of speaking out loud to groups of people.

The words that stayed with me from that evening where we all sat together in the local scout hall, keen to hear more about how best we could help our children to become confident young people, and able to command an audience,

‘When you get up to speak in public, your audience is on your side.’

Your audience wants you to do well, Barbara Johns told us.

Your audience is keen to hear from you, and especially to hear that you have something meaningful or entertaining or compelling to tell them, something, whatever it might be.

Your audience suffers with you if you’re too anxious or if you lose your train of thought.

Your audience is your friend.

This idea appealed to me. It suited me to imagine then that if I was to get up to speak my audience would back me.

I’ve since discovered that’s not always the case and that audiences by and large might want the speaker to do well but audiences consist of individuals and people are not homogenous in their desires to see you do well.

There are those who might object to something you’re saying, those who might want to silence you – out of disgust, or rage, or even out of envy, or resentment that you’re the one out there in front and not them.

Your audience, or at least some members of your audience might dislike you for political or personal reasons and resist what you’re saying.

I wish I could hold more steadfastly to Barbara John’s notion that our audience is on our side because whenever I imagine my audience in my head, I’m aware of a much more hostile audience, one that’s ready to bring me down.

Why is this so?

Perhaps it has something to do with the position I hold in my family of origin. Something about being a middle-born child and a female to boot.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fierce competitiveness I’ve long detected among my siblings, each of us striving to outdo one another, even the youngest pitched in competition against the oldest.

The age differences and chronology don’t apply so much these days when we’re all over five decades old and my oldest brother is in his mid-seventies and my younger brother nearly sixty.

But still something of the flavour of those childhood years remain and for me in the middle, my memories of feeling inadequate when pitched against my older sister remains intact.

When I hear my older grandson rebuke my younger grandson for being stupid, I tell him to desist.

‘Don’t tell people they’re stupid.’

They‘re very likely to believe you.

Siblings have a way of competing that no others hold. It’s a competition for parental love most likely.

In my family, there was always this sense that my mother preferred the boys to begin with and most notably her first born son. And then she was also keen on the youngest, my baby brother, but by the time he had arrived there was not as much energy available and she left his upbringing largely in the care of my older sister.

And me, as I grew older.

My family was my first audience, my parents in the front row and they have not been the appreciative audience I’d have liked, though there have been moments when it seemed there was more to go around, when each of us might take turns to speak and when a sense of fairness prevailed. But not often. and not for long.

Too many children and not enough parents. Not enough interest to go around. And so I must create my own. 

4 thoughts on “I want my share”

  1. Hi Elizabeth, I too like Johns’ advice, and have experienced those feelings as an audience, seeing someone go down on stage and just wanting to scoop them up or imbue them with super speaker powers! I speak on panels etc as a writer and I don’t know why organisers think folk who sit in a room on their own for years will be brilliant on a stage in front of a hundred people, but they are occasionally quite good. And, especially at large events, I’ve asked the panel chair that there only be questions at question time. There is always one person in the audience who will stand and ramble at length on a topic obliquely related to what we are talking about, just give him a microphone. One man went on for quite a while critiquing something I’d said in a panel (he hadn’t read my book) until I shut him down with ‘And do you have a question?’

    1. I recognise those ramblers at question time, Sarah, but I’m also inclined as an audience member to want to make a comment rather than ask a specific question, though I try to keep my comments short. I’m usually an enthusiastic audience participant and I want to encourage most speakers. I often forget that there are others in the audience as well, and enjoy the illusion that it’s just me and the speaker which never lasts long given there’s always an audience of others who make their presence felt. It’s lovely to see you here, Sarah. Thank you.

  2. I can see why Barbara Johns might say what she did and mostly she is right, at least that’s been my experience of public speaking and I’ve done a fair bit of it.

    I can think of two glaring exceptions. The first is when it comes to political matters which are invariably contentious and a speaker will be lucky if fifty percent of his audience supports his party let alone the particular issue to be debated. And then there’re always going to be the odd heckler some of whom really have no strong opinions one way or another but simply enjoy seeing public figures squirm.

    The second is the entertainment world. I’m thinking about there the northern working men’s clubs and the most infamous of all, The Glasgow Empire, “where comedians went to die,” English ones especially. Morecambe and Wise in their early days got paid an extra 10/- (50p) a week in “danger money” to perform there and for years they mercilessly teased Des O’Conner who as a young struggling comic pretended to faint to get off stage.

    Mostly the audience you and I face is, well, a faceless one. We never get to see people react to what we have to say even when they don’t like it and perhaps especially when they don’t like it since most people only say nice things online. I do suspect that most of our readers genuinely hope what we’ve written is worthwhile because they’re investing time in reading it and no one wants to waste their time but that does tinge what Johns said, doesn’t it?

    1. Oh yes indeed, Jim, for most of us online, our audience is faceless, and in this case your audience of one – me – is slow to respond. I agree political talks produce a very different type of beast in the audience. I’ve never really been to a political talk except at a distance during protest marches and the like. There’s mob rule and mob response and there’s also mob kindness. I prefer the last one here. A little kindness goes a long way and some of our audience hopefully errs in that direction. I’m not big on the trolls, those who want the worst for their speakers, especially online. Thanks Jim.

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