Reading Audience Feedback

This short article discusses how the feedback process works during a presentation and how a speaker gathers feedback from an audience.

Feedback is the verbal and non-verbal responses from an audience which help the speaker modify and regulate what they are saying.

Feedback is the Response from the Listeners

Feedback is the response that listeners provide to the sender of the message. Feedback is a cue to the speaker to modify or regulate what is being said. Feedback can take the form of verbal or non-verbal responses to an in-person speech, or verbal responses which are electronically captured for large or remote audiences.

An illustration of a speaker and a small audience that shows the communication model. The speaker (source) delivers (channel) the speech (message) to the audience and receives feedback.

Receiving Feedback: It is important for the speaker to receive feedback from the audience.

In-Person Verbal and Non-Verbal Feedback

Verbal Feedback

During the speech you may solicit feedback from the audience by asking a simple question. Audience members may respond verbally or they may nod or raise their hands. Additionally, audience members may ask a question or let you know if they do not understand. You may also receive direct positive or negative feedback from members of the audience who agree or disagree with what you are saying. Listen for the verbal feedback and acknowledge it.

Non-Verbal Feedback

When you are in front of the audience, non-verbal behavior can be an important cue to what the audience understands, the level of attentiveness, excitement or agreement, or confusion or disagreement. The non-verbal feedback may be intentional vocalizations, such as groans or encouragement (such as clapping). However, much of the non-verbal feedback may be unconscious physical body language, which can provide feedback for you. Here are some examples of body language that you may notice displayed consciously or subconsciously by members of the audience:

  • Boredom: boredom is indicated by the head tilting to one side, or by the eyes looking straight at the speaker but becoming slightly unfocused.

  • Disbelief: this is often indicated by averted gaze or by touching the ear or scratching the chin. When a person is not being convinced by what someone is saying, the attention invariably wanders and the eyes will stare away for an extended period.

  • Attentive eye contact: Are audience members looking directly at you attentively or are they looking around? Consistent eye contact can indicate that a person is interested and thinking positively about the speaker's subject. However, if a person is fiddling with something, even while directly looking at you, it could indicate that the attention is elsewhere.

  • Body position and posture: Audience members will generally face the speaker while listening intently; if the audience members are not interested they may shift the body position to the side rather than toward the speaker.

If you maintain eye contact with your audience while speaking, you can observe the cues and adapt your message. What is your audience telling you? All the non-verbal feedback needs to be processed with knowledge of the cultural context of the speaker and the audience. Remember that people from different cultures do interpret body language in different ways. For example, eye contact can be misleading because cultural norms about it vary widely. Direct eye contact may show attentiveness to the North American speaker but be considered a confrontation in another culture. And, certain hand gestures that are perfectly acceptable to one group may be disrespectful to another audience.

Feedback Electronically Captured from Large or Remote Audiences

You can also capture the responses from the audience by using an audience response system that you can view privately as you speak or display to the audience. You can solicit feedback directly by asking multiple choice, true-false, or numerical questions from audience members who respond using a wireless keypad such as a clicker, SMS, or text using a smartphone. The feedback from the audience is then sent back to your computer and processed by the audience response software.

For a large or remote audience, you can plan to include different questions or polls to capture feedback from your audience and adapt your message accordingly. It is necessary to structure the questions to get the feedback you want. For example, if a large percentage of your audience answers a question with a certain wrong answer, you will know that you need to explain that concept differently. Conversely, if a large percentage of the audience agrees with an opinion, you can use that feedback to adapt your message.

Timing of Feedback

Assessment, or the tactics speakers and audience members use to facilitate learning, is often divided into initial, formative, and summative categories.

  • Initial assessment, also referred to as pre-assessment or diagnostic assessment, is conducted prior to instruction or intervention to establish a baseline from which an individual's growth can be measured.

  • Formative assessment is generally carried out throughout a course or project. Formative assessment, also referred to as "educative assessment," is used to aid learning. For example, in an educational setting, formative assessment might be a teacher (or peer) or the learner, providing feedback on a student's work and would not necessarily be used for grading purposes. Formative assessments can take the form of diagnostic, standardized tests.

  • Summative assessment is generally carried out at the end of a course, project or speech. In an educational setting, summative assessments are typically used to assign students a course grade. Whereas following a speech or presentation, summative assessment can be provided in the form of positive feedback, applause or a standing ovation.

Key Takeaways

  • Verbal feedback – during the speech you may solicit feedback from the audience by asking a simple question to get feedback from the audience.

  • Non-verbal feedback – When you are in front of the audience, non-verbal behavior can be an important cue to what the audience understands, the level of attentiveness, excitement or agreement, or confusion or disagreement.

  • Audience Response System – capture feedback from a large or remote audience by using an audience response system to ask questions and then display the answers. Audience members can respond using a wireless keypad such as a clicker, SMS, or text using a smartphone.

  • You can use the responses as personal feedback to modify your message or you can share them with the audience by displaying the tabulated responses on a web page or projected as part of a PowerPoint presentation.

Key Terms

  • Feedback – The receivers' verbal and nonverbal responses to a message, such as a nod for understanding (nonverbal), a raised eyebrow for being confused (nonverbal), or asking a question to clarify the message (verbal).


Source: Lumen Learning,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2020, 12:14 PM