Speaking into the Void – How to Interact With a Faceless Audience

I am fairly confident in claiming that all of my readers will have engaged in some form of online performance whether that be via conference calls, Zoom/Teams/Meet pitches or comprehensive presentations to clients and wider audiences. This month I’ll look at that ever-present fear of engaging an audience we can’t see – or to put it another way ‘speaking into the void’.

We are all used to people switching their cameras off in a meeting, normally due to a bad internet connection, their face suddenly replaced by a sterile graphic which vibrates like some kind of spectral interaction when the user speaks; sometimes due to unscheduled interruptions at home and, dare I say it, occasionally due to a lack of engagement.  I do not have to tell you how this simple act of turning off the camera changes the dynamic of our interaction with that person. So then, how do we change our rules of engagement if we can see nobody at all?

Forget Your Imaginary Audience

The imaginary audience is a phrase that entered the field of psychology in the 1960s courtesy of child psychologist David Elkind. It refers to a state whereby people assume that they, through action or behaviour, are the centre of the focus of people around them. Back then such a state was seen as an explainer for certain behaviour by children and adolescents, perceiving themselves to be the centre of everyone’s attention. More recently social media, and the way people interact with it, has prompted a new spin on this imaginary audience concept.

It is also a state that many of those who have stood (and spoken) to the void have been tripped up by; the assumption that the audience they cannot see has nothing on their mind except for focusing on us and our every word. Bursting this bubble, and potentially with it many an ego, comes a study relating to conference calls which suggests that far from giving their undivided attention, ‘camera off’ situations provide the perfect opportunity for people to: do other work (65%), prepare or eat lunch, scroll social media, text friends and even exercise (9%)! So how does one combat this potential for an unseen audience to dodge engaging with our presentation content?

Onscreen Projection – Maintaining a Visual Presence

f you are still a physical presence onscreen, then you will need to create good reason for your audience to focus. This is achieved primarily through consolidating your presence, which needs to imbue confidence. Make sure that the onscreen persona you are projecting is the best it can be – using a well-lit, well thought out background and good camera positioning so that you dominate the screen without looking down on your audience. To this I will add a reminder that talking directly to the camera will make it harder for your audience to ignore you (by way of a ‘can they see me? I know they can’t… but what if they can?’ psychological response in keeping with the panopticon effect).

If you are delivering a long presentation, no matter how camera-friendly your face is, it probably isn’t enough to sustain the battle for undivided attention. Therefore, consider using other types of visual prompts to break up the interaction and keep audience focus. Slides are an obvious answer, but they must be prepared with ‘the void’ in mind. Short, snappy, with images, and perhaps also consider the occasional wildcard – a slide to change the tempo and act as a springboard for realigning focus. Maybe even some video.

How to Get a Faceless Audience to Engage With A Presentation

Also consider trying to elicit engagement through some Q+A – inviting answers to questions via the message function that can be discussed and add some spontaneity and ‘unscripted’ engagement. Always tell your audience at the start that they can do this and keep repeating the message rather like a radio phone-in host who clearly has a bank of empty lines in front of them and is desperate for someone to call in and have a rant.  And don’t think that planting the odd question here and there is an admission of defeat – rather it is very effective pour encourager les autres.

Using the voice to its full potential will also help to maintain attention. Previous articles have discussed many techniques for making the most of this crucially important asset – tone, pace, articulation and, above all, speaking with energy are all vocal tools for engaging a remote audience.  Aim to make the experience effortless and audience-focused and the antithesis of a monotonous lecture that fills up the time slot.

Finally, imagine you are speaking to one person who is in the room with you – just the other side of the camera and who is hanging off your every word.  The effect of ‘speaking to one person’ will create that intimacy that makes it harder for audience members to lose focus.  Don’t fool yourself though – there will always be those who are listening to you in the same way that we listen to the radio – tuning in to the bits we are interested in and tuning out during the traffic.  Don’t expect to have everyone’s attention all of the time unless you have set some extremely high expectations and have the plot, delivery and production values Marvel Studios.