Engaging Your Audience – The Power of Empathy

We all know how important it is for our audiences to feel like they understand us, get what we are talking about so want to hear what we have to say or sing. Them empathising with us is what helps us achieve this, but how do we help them empathise with us, and what else can empathy do for us as performers?

How can you use empathy in engaging your audience?


Hi! What I want to talk to you about today is empathy and we all know that when we stand up, we want our audience to empathise with us. We want them to engage with us, be open to hearing and understanding what we have to say or sing. We want them to be open to engaging with our excitement about our material. Or if we’re acting and being a character, we want them to engage and feel the emotion of the character so that they are truly swept up in our performance and engaged with it to a higher level.

So, empathy is vital for a good performance and I would say, and people who know me will understand this, empathy is also vital on another level. It’s vital for our ability to truly impact our audience because it’s only when they start to empathise with us that we have them in the palm of our hands. That’s when we’re really connecting and engaging their emotions and we’ve got them hooked in. Then they can go away feeling like they’ve really experienced something impressive and something memorable.

Today I want to talk to you in more depth about empathy and how it can be our secret weapon. Because not only can it help us engage our audience and hook them in, it can also help us be freer as performers and have more versatility as performers because it can help us lower our defenses.

We all know the importance of getting our audience to believe us and trust us and be moved by what we are saying or singing. It’s obvious and there are a whole range and variety of techniques and methods for helping performers to achieve this. I would say that the vast majority of all those techniques have one thing in common. They all require you to commit wholeheartedly to your performance, to let go of thoughts about who you are and what people might be thinking about you and how they might be judging you and lean in to the performance. And to do that, you have to drop your defensiveness, take off your armor and allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Now I have met people and I have had clients who find it really easy to do that on stage for some reason. But they find it actually harder to do that in real life. The arena in which they struggle to be vulnerable is in real life. And my theory behind this is that when they’re inhabiting another character on stage, it gives them permission to feel those emotions. It gives them permission to be vulnerable because it’s not them that’s being vulnerable, it’s their character. So, when they’re judged it’s not them that’s being judged for those vulnerabilities, it’s their character and that makes them feel safe. But in real life they feel like they will be judged for their weaknesses and vulnerabilities so that makes them feel more defensive.

For most of us though, being on stage actually highlights those vulnerabilities. And we feel more defensive and more vulnerable on stage than we do in real life. As I say for most of us it highlights vulnerabilities that we feel in real life. Although those vulnerabilities are there in real life, they’re exacerbated by being on stage in front of an audience.

So, what can we do about this? What is the solution? For me, empathy is very much a part of the solution whichever side of the coin you are on. Whether you feel more comfortable on stage or more comfortable in real life. Wherever you feel less comfortable empathy is the solution and actually applying it in the other areas of your life where you feel more comfortable will also work.

Why is that? When we feel vulnerable, we tend to be defensive and we tend to cut off and pull back from our audience, from engaging with our audience because we’re trying to keep ourselves safe from their judgement. So, then we put something up between us and our audience. This is highlighted by something I’m often asked. I’m often asked where should I look when I’m performing? The answer is simple. It depends. It depends on the nature of the performance, the nature of the audience, and the nature of the arena you are performing in. Why are you there, what are you doing and who are you doing it for? But the key is to be able to have a choice.

Now if you’re not looking at your audience or you’re looking at a fixed point on the wall or you’re looking about their heads in order to keep yourself safe, if you’re doing it as a defense then your audience will see that. They will see that you are not connecting with them. You may even be not connecting and looking at them in sheer terror. They will see that defense and it is a blockage to them actually empathising with you. It gets in the way. When we’re doing that, we’re shutting a piece of ourselves off and we actually then start to focus on us and cease to connect with our audience and commit to our performance.

Now it’s really obvious why we do this because looking at an audience can make us feel vulnerable. We fear that it will heighten our nerves. We fear that it will distract us from what we’re doing and that we’ll forget our words and mess up. We’ll fear that we’ll see exactly how harshly they’re judging us. If you’ve ever been, I mean I’m an introvert so, I’ve struggled all my life with eye contact. And looking someone dead in the eye can make you feel very vulnerable because it makes you feel like they can see you, warts and all. As someone who has spent years as a barrister and life coach looking people dead in the eye, I can tell you there is nothing more powerful in achieving humanising the person you are looking at than looking them dead in the eye. You start to see who they really are. You can see their feelings, their thoughts, their dreams, their hopes and you start to see them as human beings which means they feel less of a threat.

The audience are there for their needs. They’re there to listen, to feel, to think, to learn. But they’re there for their needs. Their purpose is not to be there to judge you, their purpose is their purpose and has almost very little to do with who you are. And if they do actually judge you, then again how they judge you says more about who they are and their wants and needs, than it does say about who you are and what you’re doing. And if you look at them dead in the eye, you can start to see that they are the center of their world not you.

So, empathising with an audience not only helps them listen and get hooked into what you’re doing, and to hear and not only just hear but also feel your message whether you’re singing or speaking. It also helps you to truly see your audience. And it’s when you truly see your audience that you start to see them for who they are. Not a threatening bunch of judgmental people but just a bunch of humans who are there to listen bringing their own beliefs, their own hopes, and often their own fears and hang-ups with them. They’re tied up in their own worlds and when you start to empathise with them and pull them in, you start to have the power to influence those worlds. To influence those worlds for the better.

Thank you very much for listening. I’m Hattie Voelcker. Bye-bye!!