(I’m behind on readers choice, so you get two this week) In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for.
This week: How to speak to a bored audience
All audiences are bored. If not now, then soon. Listening is boring, and listening to boring people talk about boring work in boring ways is even more boring. As a speaker I go in thinking “these people are probably bored to death from the last guy”, as I would be. Here’s a fun trick: next time you are in an audience at a lecture, look to your left and your right. You’ll notice how bored everyone is, even if the speaker is doing a decent job.
The surprise is there’s a huge advantage if the audience is bored. Their expectations are low. If you do anything interesting at all, such as not suck, you will stand out. If you prepared correctly (meaning you practiced, have clear points, are enthusiastic about them, and understand why the audience showed up) you’ll look like a rock star. All things equal I’d rather follow a very boring, pretentious speaker than Malcolm Gladwell or Clay Shirky.
People will perk up instantly when you start answering the question they came into the room to hear. If you choose those as your first words, you’ll have them out of the gate. And when they hear you are answering it well, you will have their full attention. It’s that simple. But few speakers have good material, or more bluntly, good thinking on the right questions in their material, that this often does not happen. Pretense, fear and ego blind smart people into doing stupid things, in lectures and at large.
The other challenge is it’s hard to judge an audience as you are presenting. The vibe you feel on stage can be different from what the audience is feeling. All performers know this, and prepare themselves to go on with the show with enthusiasm even if they don’t get the energy from the room they hoped for. If you go to Japan or Scandinavia, where the culture is more polite, you could be Martin Luther King Jr. and not get much energy back from the room, despite how awesome they thought you were.
If you dig this answer, you should check out Confessions of a Public Speaker – it goes in depth on this approach and the steps you need to get it right.