Audience Dynamics

By Rose Owens


            “How do you change audience dynamics?”   Karen Chace, an enthusiastic storyteller from New England, asked this question on STORYTELL Listserv*.  She  told stories in the same setting on two consecutive days.  On the first day  audience dynamics for each performance was fantastic as they joined in and participated; on the second day the audience was unresponsive and didn’t participate.  It was a discouraging experience.

            In situations such as this, a storyteller’s first reaction may be to wonder “What did I do wrong?  What should I have done differently?”  STORYTELL members advised Karen to trust herself, her story and her audience.  It is the interaction of storyteller, story and listener that contribute to audience energy and dynamics.  As storytellers we know our stories.  We know ourselves.  We seek to understand our audience.

            Several storytellers shared experiences that were similar to Karen’s.  Although the lack of audience response initially caused them to conclude their performance was lacking in some way, they later learned that the audience loved it!  They apparently were listening so intently, so completely that their energy was channeled into listening rather than participating.   Mary Garrett reminded members that Lincoln thought the Gettysburg Address was a failure because the audience didn’t react as he expected.  “Our own expectations may be our own worst enemy,” said Tim Sheppard. “The audience may be silently appreciating even though the performer was expecting something else.”

            “All audiences are different,” said Judith Wynhausen.  Understanding some of these differences may help us understand their different responses.  Some individuals are non-demonstrative but still listen to and internally enjoy a well-told story.  If an audience contains a majority of this personality type, the audience as a whole will be less likely to participate.  “Children do internalize their parent’s behavior and mimic it at times,” said

Granny Sue Holstein.  “If parents are non-demonstrative, children may also refrain from participating.”  Mike Myers commented that “Ages seem to make a big difference as to what energy we get back.  Adults and teens are tricky.  We have to give them permission to participate.  Ages 5 through 12 would rather participate than eat.”   Performances scheduled right after lunch may have “sleepy” audiences and those at the end of a school day may have audiences who are mentally anticipating after-school activities (David Joe Miller).

            Although a storyteller seeks to elicit audience participation, Shelby Smith reminded us that “We can’t always change the energy.”  However STORYTELL members were willing to share some ideas that might affect audience dynamics.

            “I start my performances with a song and words for the audience to sing back to me.  If they join in, I know that they will participate. Sometimes I make faces at them.  If they make faces at me, I know they’ll join in.  If not, I tell a different set of stories that do not require participation (Mike Myers).

“Any in the audience who respond more than the rest are your friends.  Play to them and they will supply some measure of feedback and support (Tim Sheppard).”

            “Sometimes it helps to have a “shill” [friend] in the audience to laugh and emote.  It gets even the quietest audience going (Steve Otto).”

            “Send a friend into the audience to get feedback, if you can.  A third person will be more objective and receive more honest responses than asking the audience yourself (Tim Sheppard).”

            Karen Chace summarized what STORYTELL members had shared about audience dynamics when she said, “I need to remember how to trust myself, read my audience so I can make appropriate changes in the show when necessary and don’t take it so personally if the audience doesn’t respond as I expected.  These shared experiences are a lovely reminder that I am not alone.”


Rose Owens

Copyright 2006


Published in Storyline (Storytelling Association of Alta California Newsletter)

Fall 2006




*STORYTELL is a listserv with over 500 members who share ideas, stories, experiences, storytelling tips and research information with each other.  See for more information.


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