One Thing Your Speakers Don’t Know

Speakers often walk out from behind the podium into the audience — but it may not have the intended effect.

It’s common for speakers – even keynoters addressing a large group — to get out from behind the podium to walk into the audience. Sounds like a good way to help erase the distance between “speaker” and “audience” and make for a more intimate kind of dialogue, right?

Not really, according to a recent study published in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review. In eight experiments, doctoral student Yanping Tu and three collaborators found that people “feel more negative toward individuals, images, and sounds if those ‘stimuli’ are perceived to be approaching them.” This aversion, the article says, “has cautionary implications for public speakers who like to get close to their audience.”

Tu told HBR that on one level, listeners may perceive a speaker as warm and friendly if s/he gets closer to listeners. But an “undercurrent of negative feeling” will increase as the speaker gets nearer. It’s almost an instinctive response — they may feel intimidated, threatened, or that the speaker is invading their space.

Tu thinks it has to do with evolution: We evolved to perceive that “stimuli pose a greater danger if they’re approaching,” she said, “and we’re still wired that way.”

What might be a better approach? Tu suggests that speakers start off near the audience — maybe a short distance from the front row, and stay there.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.