Much like clapping and applause, standing ovations are curious things. The idea, in theory, is that when a performance is so exceptional that clapping isn’t enough, people in the audience should stand to show an additional level of appreciation.
I think this is cool and great and the more kudos great performers and speakers get, the better.
The problem is there has been a kind of standing ovation inflation.
You can see it in politics, where it’s expected certain leaders get standing ovations by default. In these environments standing ovations are mandatory and expected. They convert what is supposed to be a spontaneous and responsive act into something quite official and often meaningless. And in some cases it can be seen as an insult not to stand and give an ovation, much in the same way not clapping can be seen as rude.
Rock bands are notorious for milking the equivalent of standing ovations by leaving the stage without saying they’ll be back for an encore. Then they wait for the chanting of the bands name, and come out as if the whole charade isn’t done in every venue in every city.
I’ve also found it in the arts. When I moved to Seattle, I found the number of standing ovations very high, particularly at dance or theater performances. My friends and I would look at each other in surprise as if we’d missed something – the shows were good, yes, but exceptional? No.
Our pet theories on ovation inflation are as follows:
- The audience wants to believe they’re part of something special so they stand up to help make it seem special. (“It was amazing! They got a standing ovation!”)
- They don’t get out much and can’t put what they saw in perspective.
- They want to be polite, as is often the case in Seattle, and take being polite too far.
I believe in conservative use of ovations. It’s the last gift for an audience – you can’t do any more. Once you do it, you’ve told the performer it’s the best thing you’ve seen in some time. If you give many speakers ovations, as I’ve heard happens often at TED, you’re diluting the ovation. Unless you’re willing to invent something to top ovations, keep them in reserve.
In my 15 years of public speaking, I’ve only received one standing ovation I can remember. It was my last lecture at Microsoft before I quit, where I finished by playing a song about writing specs, solo on guitar. I can’t play well or sing well, and I suspect the ovation was mostly for having the balls to do it at all.
Two questions for you:
- How do you decide when to give an ovation?
- If you’ve ever received one, do you think you deserved it?