The Blank Face of Listening

I spoke at a small local Rotary meeting last week, and I’ve never had a louder audience to talk over. Partly I loved it – so much energy, enthusiasm, connection with each other, fun to be had – and partly I chided them that I can’t share what I know with them if they’re busy talking amongst themselves. This experience made me think about what it’s like to talk in front of different audiences.

I took a class on speaking that warned me that I shouldn’t let myself be swayed by the looks on people’s faces. If it looked like people were into what I was saying, then great, but if it looked like they weren’t, I shouldn’t change what I was doing to try to coax them out. I have no idea what they are thinking inside.

This was backed up when a presenter at a three-day event said, “Do you want to know what you look like when you’re really processing what I’m saying?” She gave us a look that was so blank-faced that it looked like she wasn’t there at all.

I’m not talking about an obviously bored stance, just one where you can’t tell what’s going on inside. I see this look a lot when I talk. I always worry that people are bored, or thinking about what to cook for dinner that night. But a very experienced presenter and teacher says this is the look of someone who is thinking deeply about what you just said.

Some audience members are really good at showing their interest. They look at the presenter with curiosity and fascination. They offer energy to the presenter. Thank you, if you are one of these people! It is so helpful to have at least some people who appear to be hanging on one’s every word – it helps recharge the speaker and make him or her much more interesting. But if you find yourself speaking to a bunch of blank-faced people, remember that it probably means that they are so involved in what you are saying that they are forgetting to enliven their facial muscles. And at least you don’t have to find a way to get them to stop talking so they can listen to you.

Have you ever had the most blank-faced person in the audience tell you afterwards how much they got from what you said? Even knowing all of this, it surprises me when it happens. It always feels so unlikely, even when my brain understands. I’d love to hear your experience!




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