Why do audiences applaud?

One of the details that speakers often miss is what to do at the end of the presentation when the audience applauds.  So the speaker is caught off guard.  Most just scuttle off the stage, a little shy and embarrassed, glad to be done, eager to leave the scene and hit the bar. 

And of course, there are those who are secretly hoping for a standing ovation, that gold medal of speaking, and are disappointed if it doesn’t happen, so off they scuttle, thinking that they have failed in some way. 

But all of these mildly dysfunctional responses miss the point of applause.  Think of the audience.  It has been passive, more or less, for the past hour or more.  Now, an audience is typically packed with people who like to be active.  So passivity is hard for them, and they’re glad to be shifting gears. 

More than that, because reciprocity is deeply baked into our beings, we want to give something back when someone gives something to us.  Hence the point of applause.  It is the audience’s gift to the speaker – the audience’s way of giving back – and the audience’s chance to be active once again. 

So the job of a speaker when an audience is applauding is to accept the gift.  Stand there and take it, preferably with a smile.  Bow, gently, if you need something to do.  But don’t leave until the audience is done.  You owned the last hour.  Now the audience owns this 30 seconds.  Let them have their moment.  Don’t scuttle, or dismiss them, or fail to acknowledge the gift.  It’s good manners, and it’s good reciprocity.  

Thanks to David Meerman Scott for asking the great question that led to this blog.

Comments

  1. says

    Nick – I’m glad I asked. Thanks to your help, I’ve honed my speaking ability so that I feel comfortable on stage for all aspects of the presentation… until I am done.
    I’m looking forward to accepting the gift of applause (twice next week).

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