Reading the Audience
It’s one of the golden rules of entertainment. A true artist can read an audience within seconds of walking onto a stage, and some can second guess the
mood as they listen to the chatter before the curtain goes up. That’s when one of the other golden rules of entertainment comes into play – giving the audience what they want, rather than what you think they should have, which is always a mistake.
There’s another equally important rule – having the ability to communicate with everyone, even the guy sat in the corner at the back – especially the guy sat in the corner at the back, because if you can communicate with him, then you’re communicating with everyone in the theatre.
But the ability to deliver the goods isn’t enough – you should know in advance what the goods are, and that can change not only from performance to performance but from moment to moment in this unstable business called show. One misplaced ad-lib and everything you’ve built up over the last two hours is lost. Audiences have very long memories.
Not only charismatic entertainers but also great orators (think Churchill, Cicero, Roosevelt) are born, not made. Theirs is the natural untutored talent to hold an audience in the palm of their hand. Theirs is a gift that can’t be explained or taught – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Those unique brains can instantly assess the mood and expectations of a crowd. Their brains are naturally wired to detect emotions from cues and expressions in a crowd.
These subtle audience cues can be used to register social information. When you’re looking out at a crowd of faces, the special brain can, and will, determine the average mood of 50 or 5,000 individuals. Interpreting the mood swings of a large crowd requires a special skill and it has to be done lighting fast. It’s hard to recover from slip-ups.
Have you ever given a speech and felt it might not be going well? A quick look at the audience will give you some clues but you have to feel your audience – you have to feel what they feel.
To find out more about how this process works, we should look carefully at a new study from the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers there have confirmed that our brains determine the average mood of a crowd by looking at facial expressions. I do it by listening to them – every guffaw, every chuckle, every sigh, every cough, registers in my unconscious, helping me to instantly collate all variants to reveal the mix of emotions.
However… audiences are never uniform. An audience is made up of individuals – all different, with different ways of looking at the world, different standards and different expectations. Each individual expression can be an important social indicator, acting as a signal for everything from enjoyment to boredom to excitement to danger.
Less than 50% of communication is verbal. Especially when dealing with an audience, it is important not only to read their facial expressions, but to notice how they smile (or frown) or even how they sit. People with their faces covered are not able to communicate properly because this vital part of communication is blanked out. A hundred thousand years of human development – all the subtle eye movements, all the techniques for understanding another’s intentions, blanked out. Facial expressions are as important a part of communication as the words coming out of the mouth.
Variations in experience in the crowd all have to be interpreted, a happy medium must be reached, a compromise, a tacit understanding established between performer and audience.
The researchers at Berkley conducted a series of experiments in an attempt to discover how the brain detects variance in a crowd. First, groups of volunteers were shown sample sets of faces, some which showed the same or similar emotions, like anger. Next they were shown faces that displayed a variety of different expressions and emotions.
The researchers found that perceived mixed emotions from a crowd made it more difficult to interpret the average mood. A crowd displaying a uniform set of emotions made it much easier for volunteers to reach a more reliable average. Performers don’t always have that advantage because like people, audiences are all different. Same theatre, same show, same material, different audience.
But back to the lab… The results of the experiments suggest that one can recognize how united or divided a crowd is, and this is useful information for moulding one’s approach, especially when faced with an aggressive audience. The study largely reveals that the brain is sensitive to variance in a sea of faces.
Natural born leaders, like great orators have a natural charisma. But, contrary to popular belief, charisma is a two way street. Charisma only works when both parties, orator and crowd, are singing from the same hymn sheet. If they don’t agree with what you’re saying in first place, there can be no charisma and thus no charismatic leader. Hitler had charisma and it was at it’s most impressive when things were going well. But when things started to go badly, the charisma started to evaporate. Hitler stopped making public appearances and ceased giving speeches because his followers no longer wanted to listen to a rhetoric that was no longer relevant.
I learned these lessons in the mid 1980’s when faced with late night audiences at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool. I knew how to deal with it. I can deal with it now. But it still can’t be taught.