Yawning Audiences

By Richard Hall

No presenter in his or her right mind would want to see an audience yawning, right?

Of course not, but there is an aspect of yawning that is desirable: Empathy, the involuntary sharing of feelings between human beings. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of one person’s yawn producing a contagious chain of yawning in other people in the room. But I’m not talking about putting your audience to sleep; I’m talking about provoking a positive empathy as contagious as yawning.

Empathy occurs in specialized brain cells called mirror neurons. Studies have shown that mirror neurons cause us to mimic the physical behaviors and emotional states that we observe in others. What we see, we feel.

ABC Science of Australia reported on a study on empathy made by Atsushi Senji at the University of London’s Birbeck College. In the study, two groups of children, one with and one without autism—a developmental condition that severely affects social interaction—watched video clips of other people yawning. The researchers found that the children with autism yawned less than the other children, leading the researchers to conclude, “It supports the claim that contagious yawning is based on the capacity for empathy.”

In other words, empathy is intrinsic. Your audience perceives and responds to your emotions on a very fundamental level. If you appear poised and confident, they will feel your confidence and you will win them over.

But how can you be poised and confident when you get up on stage, the bright lights hit you, and your adrenaline starts flowing? The only method I’ve found successful is to do the groundwork first.

As a producer of corporate meetings and events, I’ve seen the full spectrum of efforts when it comes to presenters. Some prefer to be spontaneous and just “wing it.” Others inherit a slide deck from their boss or a colleague and try to shoe-horn it into the context of their presentation or speech.

Effective presenters first get their story straight by brainstorming, determine the key elements, the benefits for the audience, establish a logical order for their story, and then develop slides that support their message. But most importantly, they are the ones I see showing up for rehearsals!

No one can completely eliminate the adrenaline rush that occurs when you are on stage. But if you’re well-rehearsed, you own your own story, and tell it in a logical order, the adrenaline rush will be greatly reduced. You will feel more poised and confident, and your audience will feel it too.

And I guarantee they won’t be yawning!

Thanks to Chad Hall of Ioxus and Eli [Oleg] Pozniansky of CSR Technology (formerly Zoran) for their contributions to this post.