Audiences come in all shapes, sizes… and moods. Some audiences are loud, some are pensive, and others are, well, dead. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of stepping in front of a room, opening with one of your best stories, analogies, or jokes, and watching it land with a definitive thud of silence. The question that every presenter quietly asks him or herself during those moments of silence is this: “Is it the audience or is it me?”
Now that we understand the question, we have to figure out the answer. One of my favorite techniques is to use a humorous video somewhere in the first five minutes of the presentation. I do this because we can’t always trust our own instincts. Our own feelings and moods can fool us into believing we are giving 110% when we may very well be flat. The interesting fact about videos, or properly prepared visual aids, is that their performances never change. They don’t get moody, or tired, or frustrated. These visual aids perform exactly the same way each and every time. If the crowd lights up, you’re on your way. If the crowd remains frozen, you have your work cut out for you.
That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel; it just means we need to focus on three things:
- Don’t get angry. Sounds simple enough, but I’ll save you the trouble of walking into this trap. When you are in front of a dead audience, the experience can play tricks on your mind. Logically, it’s not really the audience’s fault, and yet, I’ve seen speakers who can get a little curt with an audience that just won’t wake up and react. Your job is not to magically change the personalities of those who have come to hear you speak. Your job is to win over their hearts and minds through your words and actions. It’s not personal; it’s just who they are. Keep smiling, and keep rolling.
- Don’t change… much. The kneejerk reaction when battling a nonresponsive audience is to pump up the energy, and force them into reacting. That move might look good on paper, but it can push the participants of that audience even further into their shells. If anything, you might have to dial back your energy just a bit. You can try to add some creative questioning to pull the audience into your presentation: That means staying away from questions that have a right or wrong response, and asking questions that are based on opinion. For instance, I could ask the participants: “What was the third part of the process you looked over last night?” Instead, I’d play it safe and ask: “In your opinion, what was the most important part of the process you recently reviewed?” If you can demonstrate to the audience that you respect them, and it is safe to participate, you might be surprised at how far out of their shells they might just venture.
- Don’t take it personally. There are all kinds of reasons as to why an audience may lack energy. You might be standing in front of an audience that just received some bad corporate news. You might be standing in front of an audience filled with tired people. Program deliveries in New Orleans and Las Vegas are famous for audiences filled with participants who stayed up too late and played too hard the night before. You might even be standing in front of a group of people from a part of the country that culturally just don’t show their emotions. (I’m not naming names, but it might rhyme with “Midzest.”) It’s almost never about you, and if you can remember that and just do your best, you’ll be surprised at how favorable the feedback will be.
It might be a little unnerving to check the temperature of your audience, but knowledge is power. If you can remember the suggestions I spoke of, you’ll be able to get more out of those low reacting audiences than you think. In the end, it’s all about showing respect to whatever kind of audience you are facing, and doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt.