I watched a student perform the other day, and noticed that she kept sneaking glances at the audience…presumably to gauge their reaction.

For a moment, I was tempted to make funny faces or assume a look of horror to see what would happen. But that seemed like a mean thing to do, and besides, I don’t have that large a facial vocabulary.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a problem to look out into the audience per se, but we have this unfortunate tendency to scan the audience for the wrong things.

Under pressure, we are prone to focusing on threats, so we tend to notice the bored, disinterested-looking folks, and quickly go from “Hmm…is that person falling asleep or just listening with his eyes closed?” to “This doesn’t seem to be going well…I don’t know what I’m doing…I sound like crap…I don’t deserve to be on stage…I should never ever perform again…”

How can we avoid this negative spiral of doom when we look out into the audience and are greeted by a sea of sour-looking faces?

The rule of thirds

When I was in grad school and began doing more speaking in public, my mentor gave me a simple bit of advice that I still remind myself of to this day.

He told me about the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds states that in any given class or group of people, a third are going to love what you have to say – even before you say a word.

Another third will be on the fence, and make up their minds as you progress through your presentation.

The last third, you might as well forget about, because they aren’t going to be interested in anything you say or do, no matter how important or compelling you think your message is.

The trap

Think back to a time when you’ve been in a situation like this.

Which third of the audience got the majority of your attention? The third that loves you? Or the third that wishes it were somewhere else?

If you’re like most, you worry about and dwell on the disinterested folks.

My mentor explained that this is a trap. When we focus on the third that can’t wait to leave, we start questioning ourselves, we get flustered, rush things, try too hard, and end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

He said what we ought to do is engage the most enthusiastic third. The third that is nodding along enthusiastically, smiling, and totally “getting” what we have to say.

Because when we focus on the most engaged folks in the audience, we speak louder, clearer, and more confidently, our belief in ourself is bolstered, and we end up giving a more compelling performance.

Not only does the engaged third thus get the best we have to offer, but the middle third (the fence-sitters) see us at our best, and are more likely to be swayed to our side.

Take action

At the end of the day, this is about remembering to focus relentlessly on those things that help you perform your best. That allow you to play (or speak) freely, and to express or say the things you really truly believe in.

So when you walk out on stage, you have to make a deliberate choice. Will you focus on the audience member who is sleeping, talking, or fiddling with his iPhone? Or seek out the one with a warm smile?

When you walk out on stage to conduct the first rehearsal with an orchestra you’ve never worked with before, will you focus on the bored, cranky looking musicians? Or the enthusiastic ones with the bright shiny eyes, who are sitting up in their chairs?

Remember, you’re not psychic

One last bonus tip.

Keep in mind that while we can often identify the folks who are enthused, we can’t reliably pick out those who are on the fence, or totally disengaged.

I say this, because I’m always surprised by the people who come and talk to me after a workshop or presentation. Invariably, there will be at least a couple people who tell me how much they enjoyed the talk, even though I swear they looked ticked off or bored out of their minds during the entire presentation.

I can also say this because I’ve been told that I am totally that annoying person in the audience who looks bored and disinterested, no matter how good a time I might be having on the inside…

Don’t waste your time and attentional resources trying to read the audience’s minds. Focus on the most engaged people, and play to them instead.

You’ll enjoy yourself more, and in all likelihood, so will they.