Control Yourself!  Using Your Audience to Make Your Presentations More Powerful and Engaging

By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Anyone who regularly spends time at the front of the room is well aware of the effects that the environment can have on one’s behavior.  If the audience is alert and attentive, it’s much easier to be an energetic and engaging speaker than when they are sleepy or distracted.  Of course, one can always, “power through,” by acting excited, making a lot of eye-contact, and calling on people to engage them (among other things).  My experience, however, is that “powering through” is a lot of work, and truth be told, I don’t like to work that hard.  As such, I’ve discovered a few ways to alter the behavior of the audience such that it modifies my own behavior.  This is what Skinner (1953) referred to as self-control.  I’d like to share a few of them here. 

The first is really only appropriate to traditional classes – the type that take place over a series of meetings.  Beyond that, it’s probably only appropriate for classes about behavior analysis or behavioral principles.  It is, however, very effective. 

When I was a professor I was accountable for our Concepts and Principles class.  This was the first class that many students had that dealt exclusively with behavioral principles.  Many of the students had very little familiarity with our science.  They may have worked at a clinic and been impressed with the results they saw from running behavioral programs.  They may have had a loved-one with autism and found that this thing called behavior analysis offers effective treatment.  Or they might have watched Criminal Minds, and thought they were enrolling in a program where they would learn to solve murders.  If they wanted to solve murders, we would usually invite them to reconsider joining our program.  If they fell into those first two camps, it was very likely that, while they really wanted to make a difference by using behavior analysis, taking a behavioral approach to behavior change was going to be a big challenge to their conditioned way of looking at the world.  So I tried to design an activity that could be offered in the first class that would do two things: 1) start to bring them around to looking at things from a behavior analytic perspective, and 2) leave them wanting to make me a great instructor.  Here’s what I came up with. 

After going over the syllabus and handling administrative issues, I would ask the class “What causes behavior?”  At this point, the students who had some background would say really smart things, like “stimuli,” and “the environment,” and then look really satisfied with themselves.  And then the students who didn’t would say things like thoughts, feelings, and emotions, at which point the students who had a background in behavior analysis would look even more satisfied.  I validated everything, and wrote it all down on the whiteboard.  They would say, “emotions,” and I would say, “emotions! Great! What else?”  And we would do that until they didn’t have anything else to say. 

At this point, I would point out that, if we look at all of this stuff carefully, we see that it mostly fits into four categories: history, genetics and physical limitations, the present environment, and other behavior.  Then I’d say, “Well, we’re not going to try to change behavior with other behavior, because we’d only be able to change that behavior with one of these three other things, so which one do you think we’ll use to change behavior?”  At which point, they would answer pretty quickly that we’d want to use the present environment, since it’s the only thing to which we have access.  Then I’d say, “Yes.  This is why, as behavior analysts, we say the environment causes behavior.  Not because it’s the only valid answer, but because, if we want to change behavior, it’s really the only place we can make a difference.” 

Then we would look at the environment of the classroom, from their perspective.  We talked about the space, the presentation of material, the assignments, quizzes, and me.  At this point, I usually made a point of it to stress how I, as the teacher, am the most important part of the environment.  And I really stress it, albeit in a very sarcastic, clearly-I’m-kidding, sort of way.  And we would laugh, but then I would get serious and say, “but here’s what I want you to be mindful of: while I’m one of the most influential variables in your environment, for three hours each week, you’re my environment.  And you actually have a lot of say over my behavior.” 

Then I did an exercise that is designed to have them discover how much they can control my behavior.  I had them get a partner, and it had to be one.  If there was an odd number, I would have a teaching assistant step in.  I’d tell them to have one of them be A, and one of them B.  Then I’d say, “Ok, A’s, you’re going to pick something you’re really passionate about, and you’re going to tell it to me in a way so that passion really communicates.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  It could be how much you love making a difference for kids with autism, it could be how much you love Game of Thrones.  Now, B, while A is sharing this, your job is to make it very clear to A that you really don’t care.  You can roll your eyes, you can yawn, if you have a text to send this would be a really great time to do that.”  Once everyone is clear on the instructions, I’d say, “go” and then give them one minute to do that.  Then we would switch so that B is the one sharing.  Afterwards, we talked a little about the experience, and what people usually pointed to is how hard it was to talk, how they wanted to talk about something else, and how generally awful it was both as a speaker and listener. 

Following that, we did that same exercise, but with one critical difference.  After telling the As that they can take the same topic or a different one, I’d say, “B, this time around your job is to listen to A like everything they say is the best thing you’ve ever heard.  I want you to smile, nod, say, ‘wow!’ – anything that will communicate that what they’re saying is really, really great.”  Then they’d do that, and then B’s got their chance doing the same thing, and then we talked about what that experience was like.  Oh! And the second time around I actually gave them an extra 15 seconds without telling them.  After we discussed that, I let them know about the extra time and there was usually some surprise about it.  The second time around, sharing was actually fun!

I concluded the exercise by asking them to be a great environment for me.  And I told them that, regardless of how they are, I will be a great environment for them.  At this point, they were all usually pretty excited and into the idea of making me be wonderful so I can make them wonderful they didn’t have any problem making that promise.  So I had taken a first, important step in creating an environment for me to be great in. 

And then, reliably, they break their promise.  It’s not a problem; it’s to be expected.  The second thing I want to leave you with are some very easy ways to cheer a class up, make them smile, and enjoy being in class.  It all starts with, “get a partner.  Now pick an A and a B.”

After that, its pretty open-ended what I will usually say next.  Sometimes it’s as simple as, B, give A a high five!”  Sometimes I’ll give them something to say like, “A, ask B how they got to be so smart.  B, tell A, ‘momma raised me right!’”  Sometimes I’ll simply say, “cheer each other up.”  Whatever I say, interjecting something silly usually gets them smiling, and then I can relax and enjoy talking to a room full of smiling people. 

The last thing I want to leave you with is this: this works with everyone.  As a professor, the place I used this the most was in the classroom with millennials.  But I’ve also used it in leadership training seminars, management training, and faculty council meetings.  I have yet to find a group of learners who doesn’t appreciate a moment of levity and show their appreciation by being a better audience. 

To conclude, when public speaking, it’s easy to have a rough time and say that it was a “rough crowd.”  And that’s valid.  You might be training people at the end of a long day, during a brutal winter, when they all have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives.  In my experience, however, there isn’t a rough crowd on the planet that can’t be smoothed out a bit, and a good crowd can take a rough teacher and make them charismatic and engaging. 

Let us know about your crowd smoothing skills in the comments below.  And be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Scott Herbst, PhD
[email protected]

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at, or email at [email protected] for more information.

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6 Comments on "Control Yourself!  Using Your Audience to Make Your Presentations More Powerful and Engaging"

  1. Kimberly Orliczky | October 8, 2015 at 11:40 am | Reply

    Scott, I really enjoyed this post! I love how you used a hands on approach to give the students an experience with changing behavior in a real context. I’m sure your class must have been really fun!! I can see how this would work with parents, clinicians and co-workers alike. I love that you are really getting them excited about the science in a “not so nerdy” way. Sometimes clinicians get stuck in the analysis and lose the fun. I really enjoyed this and it totally got my wheels spinning! I am thinking about how I can incorporate this into our monthly staff meeting to encourage the our team and bring some energy to our meeting! I’m also thinking about the application for reading nonverbal cues in teens struggling socially. The exercise in which your students act interested or disinterested would be a great way to teach nonverbal cues and the effect of attention on a peer. Great Article. Thanks for sharing.

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