Everyone talks about how this room or that room was “a tough room” or a “tough crowd”. What makes one crowd tough and another one easy? Sometimes I think it’s mostly the speaker trying to explain why they didn’t do as well as they’d have liked, and the toughness of the crowd is an easy target.
I’d argue you can’t know how tough a crowd is or not unless you get there early enough to see another speaker present – only then can you calibrate how good they were, with how quiet or hostile the crowd was in response. With a sample size of 1 – you and your talk – you don’t have enough data to say anything about the crowd’s toughness.
I think often the tough crowd is created by the speaker not being informed enough about what’s going on in the room. What are they mad about? Why are they so quiet?
Here’s some advice on tough crowds:
- Every audience has a vibe – know what it is. Some professions, countries, and groups are quieter or more reserved than another. Ask other people who have spoken at the group, or ask the host. It might seem tough to you, but entirely normal to them. Calibrate your expectations.
- Know the things that make them mad, and avoid. Every company or industry has words they hate or facts they don’t want to hear. For example, mentioning Google at Microsoft, or Microsoft at Google, is sure to provoke a response. Choose stories and examples carefully.
- Nothing makes an audience happier than talking about what they came to hear. Perhaps they’re upset because of recent news, layoffs or a product failing in the marketplace. If there’s some constructive way you can work their true issues into your session, you can relieve the pressure they’re feeling.
- There is always someone in the crowd who hates you the least. Find the people who seem most positive or active and give them as much of your attention and eye contact. Rewarding their positive responses will encourage them to keep doing it, and possibly help others in the audience follow along.
What are other factors that make crowds tough? And what are counter moves speakers should know? I’d love to hear your stories on tough crowds you’ve faced and what you learned (or didn’t :)