A year or two ago, one of my grad students became distraught while giving a talk at a meeting. He looked out at the audience and thought that an Important Scientist looked bored and may even have looked at his watch during the talk. The thought of having bored the Important Scientist haunted him when he prepared talks for later conferences, and I spent a lot of time trying to talk him down from his anxiety because it was not a healthy fixation and because (1) My student could have been wrong about his perception of audience reaction; (2) Even if the Important Scientist looked at his watch, this does not necessarily mean he was bored; there are other explanations for watch-looking; and (3) Others at the talk (including me) thought it was an excellent talk, so why worry (too much) if one person may have been less than fascinated?
Audience reaction of the audible and visual sort can also be a good thing and is not necessarily disturbing. I gave a talk last year that had some new and kind of cool results in it. At some point during the talk, when I got to a particularly important image, I was aware of a rustling sound in the audience and I saw that many people had started taking notes. This was followed a few slides later by an increase in whispering among the audience. My anxious and insecure student would probably have interpreted this reaction to mean that the audience had decided to do things other than listen to his talk and were whispering about how stupid he was, but I am more confident and/or egotistical than that and interpreted it to mean the audience was interested.
While teaching a class, we can also pick up on audience vibes and this helps us know if we are engaging the students or losing them entirely. I personally am not bothered by students who have laptops open during a lecture (I assume that they are taking notes, though I know in my heart of hearts that they may be doing something else), and people reading or sending text messages get only a piercing stare from me in a medium sized class, and no admonition at all in a large class. As long as there are some students who are paying attention and who show me by their head nodding, question asking/answering, smiles or puzzled frowns whether they are following the discussion or not, and as long as the unengaged are relatively silent about their ancillary activities, I am unconcerned. It is my job to try to interest as many students as possible in what I am saying, but I know that it is impossible, especially in a large class, to get every single student to pay close attention for an entire class.
In some ways, teaching a class and giving a talk are similar in that both require the speaker to be as clear and engaging as possible, but there are some important differences in speaking style in the two settings. For example, I pay much more close attention to my audience when I am teaching than when I am giving a research talk. When teaching, I want to know what the audience reaction is as specifically as possible, making eye contact with individual students and addressing them directly. When giving a talk, I do not do this.
As a speaker during a professional talk, I prefer to look out on the audience as a whole, without focusing on anyone in particular. I think it is important to look out at the audience and appear to be speaking directly to them (as opposed to the screen or your shoes), but it's probably not a good idea to look at anyone in particular and try to gauge their interest level and wonder whether they arelooking at their watch out of boredom, taking notes on that laptop, or updating their Facebook page.
6 months ago