Reading Your Audience - There’s An App For That

By Bill Connor, Partner, Oratorio



Sometimes it’s hard to tell what your audience thinks of you and your material when you’re speaking in public. Unless they’re grinning from ear to ear and nodding their heads in agreement – or alternatively, yawning and burying their heads in their smartphones – it can be difficult to assess the subtle cues that tell you whether you’re winning them over or bombing. But researchers at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a fascinating new application that may change all that.

It works like this: give the speaker and the audience members Apple Watches or Samsung Gears or similar devices that can communicate with each other, and the app developed by PhD candidate Mohammed Ghassemi and his colleagues at MIT can transmit physiological information from the audience that can tell the speaker whether she’s on track or off the rails.

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“This could very quickly help the speaker identify, with something tangible, how well the speech is going, because what we’ve found in our research is that there are telltale signs of the physiological response of the individual that show whether they’re having a good time or not,” says Ghassemi. “They’ll get more fluctuations in their heart rate, their skin conductivity will increase a little. Things like this will give the speaker a sign about whether your audience cares about what you’re saying or not.”

The app also assesses vocal tones, so if an audience member asks a question or makes a comment, the speaker’s wearable can process that information as well. Ghassemi and his MIT co-researcher Tuka Alhanai originally developed the app as a tool for people with Asperger’s and autism, who often have trouble reading others’ emotions and social cues. It will be ready for commercial use in early 2018.

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Of course we’re still in the early stages of applying this technology, and not every audience member and speaker owns a wearable that can support the app. Until we reach that point, you should learn everything you can about your audience – knowledge level, likely opinions and preconceptions of your subject matter - before you start speaking. You can’t guarantee that you’ll wow every person in the room every time, but you’ll certainly do better than if you come in cold.

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To learn more about Ghassemi’s work, please go to https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.wsj.com/amp/articles/can-an-algorithm-detect-a-speakers-mood-1487871340 and https://www.linkedin.com/in/mohammad-ghassemi-401a843/