By now, if you’ve wasted even a small amount of time on the Internet when you should be doing more serious things, you’ve probably seen images or video of those giant flocks of birds changing direction almost as one.  And scientists have figured out that it’s even more amazing than it looks, because there’s no one bird in charge.  Instead, the birds take turns, and the signals spread through the flock so fast that 400 birds can change direction in a half-second.  Here’s a Smithsonian article explaining the feat. 

The survival value of that bobbing and weaving behavior seems pretty clear.  It must enable the birds to avoid (and confuse) predators very effectively.

Now, what’s interesting in this context is that humans can do something very similar.  Imagine a crowd of people, say, at a rock concert.  If they all suddenly turn to look at something – perhaps, the star popping out from one side of the stage – you are able to react by guessing precisely where they are looking in less than a fifth of a second.  You turn your gaze to the same spot in (much) less time than it takes to read this sentence.

It’s an amazing response, and one can imagine that it has evolutionary benefits, for spotting danger quickly, perhaps.  The human brain is somehow able to size up the crowd as one, not as a bunch of individuals, because then it would take much longer.

Similarly, we can average the emotions of nearly 20 human faces, and get a general attitude, in less than half a second.  And we can guess the male-female ratio of a group with similar speed and surprising accuracy.  No doubt that first one allows us to figure out angry crowd, run! in time to get away.  I’m not quite sure why we need the second ability, but there it is.

Scientists call these talents “ensemble coding,” and they teach us something important about the way we need to think of audiences as speakers.  We need to respond to audiences in two ways in order to be most effective connecting with them.  First of all, we need to remember that humans connect best with individuals.  As we talk, we should pick out individual members of the audience and talk directly to them, in order to make strong connections with the people in front of us.

But we should also set our minds to reading the entire group, because we can, and because in that way we can judge how our talk is coming across and make mid-course corrections if things seem dicey.  Does the audience look confused?  Stop and give them a few moments to think up and ask questions.  Does the audience seem to be resisting your message?  Start an individual conversation or two designed to elicit objections or alternate ideas.  Does the audience look bored?  Give them a shift of direction in order to get their attention back.

If you don’t know the attitude of the group as a whole, you can’t make intelligent adjustments to keep the presentation strong.  So use your group-reading abilities to stay in touch with the group even as you talk individually to make strong connections with people.  The result will feel like a conversation with the entire audience.


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