How to speak to a bored audience

In a series of posts, called ask berkun, 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 speaker”, 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 well.

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 seem interesting. All things equal I’d rather follow a very boring, pretentious speaker than a fantastic one.

Most speakers fail to give the audience what they came for, which is usually: practical answers to the questions they have on your topic, and it’s the hope of hearing these answers that  compelled them to the lecture in the first place . People perk up instantly when you start giving them what they came for. If you choose this as your opening comment, you’ll have them from the start (“There are 5 things I think you want to know about X and here they are. Number 1…”).

And when they hear you answers are good, practical, interesting, and useful you will have their full attention. It’s that simple. But few speakers have good material. Few speakers have good thinking on the right questions in their material. 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 while 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 Chris Rock or Louis CK 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.

4 Responses to “How to speak to a bored audience”

  1. Steve Syfuhs

    The best example of this came from a comedian who was doing a show in farm country. Some point after the show he was being interviewed, and asked what his hardest audience was. This particular audience was huge, but didn’t make a noise the entire night. He was going nuts trying to compensate during the show. He just couldn’t get it right.

    Then, after the show a lovely old lady came up to him and told him how funny he really was: “You gave a wonderful performance, and I really enjoyed the show. You were so funny I almost laughed.”

  2. Scott Berkun

    There are tricks that sometimes work, but you have to have some courage to try.

    At conferences people are simply sitting around all day. Getting them to stand up and use their bodies literally gets the blood flowing. It feels silly to ask an entire crowd to stand and shake out their limbs, or introduce themselves to their neighbor, or jump up and down a few times, but it does usually pay off. We are physical creatures first.

    Getting people to laugh brings energy into the room, and wakes up all the people who tuned out. But there is no guaranteed way to get a laugh. I’d never bet big on a single joke working.



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