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Sylvia Henderson

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Upon attending recent seminars, concerts, movies, and other public events I am appalled at the seeming discourtesy demonstrated by attendees and participants in learning venues. As I criticize others, I look at myself and realize, to my chagrin, that I practice some of these behaviors. Now that I realize how annoyed I am by others, my commitment to myself is to be a more respectful, attentive audience member and learning participant.

What is your participant profile? Take this self-test to see if you practice any of these behaviors. Then read on to discover how to be a better—or great—audience member or learning participant.

For each stated behavior, identify the level of your own behavior (on a scale of 1-through-5, with “1” = you rarely exhibit the behavior and “5” = you regularly do so).

1. I whisper to the person sitting next to me while the speaker is speaking, movie is playing, or event is in progress.

2. I text, send notes, or otherwise use my mobile device instead of giving my full attention to the activity at hand.

3. I sit back and disengage—mentally and physically—from the activity at hand.

4. I stare off into “nothingness” without making eye contact with the speaker or focusing on the activity at hand.

5. I lean forward, sit on the edge of the seat, stand up and remain standing, or otherwise block the view of the people behind me.

6. I wear headgear or hairstyles that sit up high and block other people’s views.

7. I cough, sneeze, clear my throat, or otherwise make noises continually throughout the session without taking steps to limit or muffle the noises.

8. I open candy or snack wrappers, pop drink cans, clink and stir ice, or ruffle through my bag or papers noisily throughout the session.

9. I wear headphones/earbuds to listen to other audio or video input that is unrelated to the event, during the event.

10. I keep my mobile device “on” and allow it to ring audibly during the event. (Add 5 points to any score if you actually answer it in the event venue during the event!)

TOTAL SCORE (Sum of sub-totals):

If your total score is:

10 or lower: Way to go. Continue practicing your respectful and attentive behaviors, and suggest to the people around you that they do the same.

11-to-30: Most of us are “guilty” of some of these behaviors at some point in time. Brush-up on the suggestions for how to be a better audience member (in this article) and see where you might be an even better attendee or participant next time.

31-to-50: Whoa! How do you think your behaviors affect the rest of the audience or group? If others do not bother you, at least be aware that you may bother them. Now that you are aware that you practice such behaviors, see the suggestions for how to be a better audience member (in this article) and adopt some of the suggestions.

Your Guide to Being an Exemplary Audience Member, Attendee, or Participant

Let us look at ways in which you can improve on the behaviors in the self-test regardless of your score. A review is just as important (if you are a great audience member) as discovering new information.

Whispering and Talking [1, 7, 8]

Ever sit behind two or three people who whisper and talk to each other? One person typically leans to the left or right towards the person to whom she whispers, thereby blocking your view of whatever is going on in the front of the room. Auditorium seating purposely offsets each row from the row in front of it so that people can see through the gap between two seats in front. When you lean towards the person to whom you whisper you physically block the view of the person behind you. That is just plain rude!

Hold your conversation until the break or the end of the program. Take it out of the room or away from the rest of the audience if there is something you absolutely must say during the program. Motion and whispers in the back of the room are as distracting as within the audience. Sound travels around the room. The speaker in front of the room is looking out into the audience and can see and hear you in the back. Other people in the audience have trouble focusing on the program when they sense distractions behind them.

Whispers and noises made by movement blend with ambient background noise and make it difficult for a hearing-challenged person to discern the speaker or program audio from the rest of the noise. Creating such an atmosphere is unfair to your fellow audience members and disrespectful to them.

Texting and Mobile Devices [2, 10]

Just because you are at an event or in a program or movie, the rest of the world does not stop. However, you can control how you handle your unexpected communications and limit those not related to the program at hand.

If you must text or otherwise use your mobile device, get up and leave the room. Only when you are invited as an audience to take pictures and post comments during the program is it appropriate to do so. If you are in the audience with the specific purpose of publicizing the session, sit in the back of the room so that others do not see the glow of the mobile device nor are disturbed by your raising and lowering the device.

Worse yet is your leaving your mobile device “on” so that it rings audibly. Most of the time you receive a request before a program begins to turn off your device or to put it on vibrate. I, however, assume that the request is a given whenever I enter an event venue. As soon as I sit in my seat, I reach into my pocket and turn my mobile device to vibrate—or off completely. When you forget to turn the audio on your device off and it rings during the program, it takes several rings before you locate, extract, and fidget with the controls to turn it off. By then you have distracted not only the audience in general but also the speaker.

Even worse is answering the thing during the program! Yes, people do this. Get up and leave the room to make a call, take a call, or handle email. Plain and simple. People beside you can see your actions, which draws their attention from focusing on the program they came—and most likely paid for—to see. Practice good time management principles and hold your calls and messages until a break or the end of the program.

When you set your device on vibrate, keep the device on your person rather than placing it on the table (if you are seated at a table). Put it on your lap, in a pocket close to your body, or slide it under your leg while you are seated in order to feel the vibration. If you put the device in your purse or briefcase you will not feel the vibration, yet this is the most respectful thing to do overall.

If you absolutely must text or handle an urgent communication, do so discretely under the table or shield the device within your jacket so that others cannot see the light glow from the device. This is important to do especially when you are in a movie theatre or otherwise dark environment. People can see the light from your device from far away.

Disengagement [3, 4, 9]

Speakers and trainers value audience engagement. You learn best when you are engaged and active in your learning process. Adults need to be engaged to best learn new skills and retain new information. If you paid to attend the event, you want it to be interesting for you.

When you mentally disengage, you give physical signals that your mind is no longer on the program. Your eyes tend to fix on nothing in particular and look like they are glazed-over. You may frown a lot or, worse yet, fall asleep right in front of the speaker! Yawns, whispering, fidgeting, looking around the room, and other distracting behaviors are typical of our mental disengagement.

Rather than sit back and physically disengage if the session is boring, let the speaker or event planner know your feelings via the event evaluation rather than through your physical mannerisms. Attempt to be polite enough to look attentive even if you are bored…or leave the room. When you provide your feedback on an evaluation, be specific with your observations and feelings. Identify specific parts of the program or aspects of presentation skills you find needing improvement.

Physical Distractions and Blocking [5, 6]

Several of the behaviors already identified in this article represent physical distractions. As mentioned previously, physical distractions are annoying to other people in the audience. Blocking is rude and inconsiderate.

Blocking includes: leaning forward in your seat, sitting on the edge of the seat, changing your seating position to place yourself directly in front of someone behind you (especially if you sit taller than they are), wearing head gear or a hair style that rises above the person’s sightline behind you, standing when others are sitting, and leaning towards the person next to you to fill-in the open space that is the sightline for the person sitting behind you.

The solution to the blocking issue is to stop blocking. Be cognizant of your physical positioning and how it relates to the people around you. While you cannot change your height or girth, you can be aware of whether or not you may cause a problem for someone smaller than you who may be sitting behind you. You may be able to slide down in your seat or fidget less often. You may be able to switch your seat with someone else so that you are in front of someone of equal size to yours.

Make “Common Courtesy” Common

Society in the 21st century, and anyone born after 1980, is more plugged-in and turned-on as individuals and small groups than previous generations. Television, movies, concerts, dramatic events, meetings, learning opportunities, and other engagement can be experienced by individuals while alone, or in small groups in private venues thanks to evolving technology. Therefore, being a member of an audience or a participant in a large-group event becomes something we experience less often. We become accustomed to expressing ourselves and behaving as we see fit for ourselves without regard for our effect on other people since we are with other people less often.

The irony of our situation is that because we participate less often in live programs with large groups, we are less practiced in courteous, considerate, and engaged behaviors commensurate with being a “good audience”. Yet we need to participate in live events in order to connect with people from whom we distance ourselves with our technology. Being a good audience member is really just practicing common courtesy towards our colleagues in the audience with us. Make the commitment, yourself, to make common courtesy common. When each of us does the same, we become one great audience, together.

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Sylvia works with individuals and organizations (businesses, associations, non-profits, educational, and government) to make their "people image" match - or exceed - their organizational image for greater profit, more clients, and a higher degree of personal and professional success. Bring Sylvia to your organization at Blog: Sylvia's Blog Twitter: @SuccessLanguage.
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MLA Style Citation:
Henderson, Sylvia "How to Be a Great Audience Member/Learning Participant." How to Be a Great Audience Member/Learning Participant. 07 Oct. 2011 27 Mar. 2017 <>.
APA Style Citation:
Henderson, Sylvia (2011, October 07). How to Be a Great Audience Member/Learning Participant. Retrieved March 27, 2017, from
Chicago Style Citation:
Henderson, Sylvia "How to Be a Great Audience Member/Learning Participant." How to Be a Great Audience Member/Learning Participant
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