I'm a huge proponent of audience rights. I believe every presenter owes his audience complete focus and the respect of being well-prepared, interesting and relevant. However, audiences have some responsibilities in this partnership called a presentation. There is an implicit contract between presenter and audience, where each gets from, and gives to, the other. Too frequently, I have observed audiences just not living up to their end of the bargain.
Here are the key obligations an audience has in order to fulfill their "contractual" responsibilities:
1. PAY ATTENTION. Give the presenter the courtesy of paying attention, at least long enough to determine if you are going to receive value. If you feel compelled to multi-task while in the presentation (e.g., checking or sending e-mail [I'm not talking about Twitter here], surfing the web, reviewing documents you brought with you, taking a phone call) consider not attending the presentation at all. You won't get much out of it, you'll be distracting to the speaker and other audience members and you certainly won't be able to provide constructive, meaningful feedback at the end.
2. ANSWER QUESTIONS. When the presenter asks a question, volunteer an answer. Don't sit like a lump, averting your gaze to ensure no possibility of eye contact. The more you engage in the conversation, the more value you are likely to get out of the experience. Obviously you're off the hook if you have no idea what to answer, but in most cases, you're likely being asked for an opinion...so share.
3. ASK QUESTIONS. Unless everything is crystal clear to you, ask questions and challenge the content being presented. Ask for clarification, ask for jargon to be explained, ask for an example of how this would work in your situation. Not only will this make it more interesting and relevant for you, it's quite possible that others in the audience may have the same questions, so you're helping everyone by asking.
4. RESPOND. Be involved rather than sitting passively. When appropriate, laugh or smile in response to what the presenter says. Maintain eye contact to capture the nuances of meaning on a given point.
5. EVALUATE. If you engage in the above four behaviors, you will be in a great position to provide meaningful, specific feedback to the presenter which will improve his skills thus ensuring better presentations for future audiences. Take the time to fill in that evaluation sheet thoughtfully. Even if you're not an expert in assessing presentations, you know what worked for you and what didn't. Make some notes throughout the presentation about areas or techniques you found useful and other areas where you wish the presenter had covered something in more depth or used more examples or made eye contact instead of reading from his slides. The majority of presenters want to hear how their audiences felt about the information they provided, even if the feedback points out some weak spots that need improvement.
So what's in this for you, you ask? As Seth Godin says, being a responsible audience member has big paybacks -->> more energy and insight from the presenter and more focused answers to your questions. And by raising the bar for the presenter by evaluating critically, you will contribute to a better presentation the next time around.
So, audiences, make the choice to hold up your end of the bargain. The rewards will definitely be worth it!