Public Speaking Success: The Disinterested Audience

bored audienceOf all the different types of hostile audiences out there, the disinterested or uninterested crowd can be one of the toughest to address. There are a number of reasons that your audience can fall into this category, such us being forced to attend the event, so we’ll look at what causes an audience to be disinterested and what you can do to bring them around.

What causes a disinterested audience:

A number of things can cause an audience to be soured about your presentation even before you reach the podium. They range from personal prejudices to attitudes related to the event itself. Here are some common reasons:

  • The topic is something they’re not interested in or they disagree with the premise.
  • They are required (or “strongly encouraged”) to attend the event.
  • They wanted a different speaker, venue, topic or other event detail and didn’t get their
  • They have a negative impression of the speaker.

If you’re a professional speaker, you’re most likely to come across these types of audiences when you’re first starting out. This is more common among audiences that you would give free speeches to – meeting planners that are shelling out thousands of dollars to hear you speak will do a lot more due diligence before selecting a speaker and topic.

If you give speeches to your work group or to promote your business, you’re likely to run into this problem because you’re pulling people away from their work to listen to you. In any case, there are a few things you can do to energize the audience.

Acknowledge the situation and address it:

Last year, I spoke to a group of college students at 10 AM on a Saturday morning. It was their first weekend back to school and they were required to get out of bed earlier than they had to on some of the days they had classes to come listen to people speak.

I started off the event by thanking the audience for attending the session (one of my best friends was presenting with me) and said “I know it must have been tough for you to attend this event given that it’s early on a non-school day and it’s your first weekend back. So we put in an extra effort to make sure that this presentation is well worth your time.” I then listed off the benefits that they would get from the session and by then, it seemed like we were able to get most of them excited about the presentation.

So sympathize with your audience, especially if you’re giving a talk about a hot button issue. I know people who speak about global warming and they state right off the bat that there are people in the audience that might not believe in it. One person put it brilliantly by stating “I know that you all have an opinion about global warming and some of you may disagree with my opinion. I respect that and I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to present my viewpoint and then I’d be glad to have an open and professional dialogue with you afterwards.”

Don’t assume your presentation style will automatically win them over:

If you think that your audience will warm up to you just because you’re a good speaker, you’re in for a rude awakening. Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, both of whom are excellent speakers, delivered fantastic speeches at their respective conventions. Yet both were heavily criticized by people who didn’t agree with them politically.

Many novice speakers make the mistake of assuming that the warm and fuzzies that they get from their audience at their Toastmasters club will transfer over to other audiences. Toastmasters and even service clubs are often safe audiences – they’ll be polite and applaud you even if you fall on your face. Other audiences, especially audiences that put a high value on their time, won’t be so nice.

Style is great and helps you bring your speech to the next level. But without a foundation built with relevant and useful content, you’ll have a hard time winning over any hostile audience.

Appeal to your audience’s interests:

I spoke to a group of student leaders at a college this past weekend. They were required to attend the event (and fortunately it wasn’t too early) so I, along with my co-presenters, created our presentation with their interests in mind. Instead of trying to sell them on the idea of being more active in student organizations, we talked about how what they’re doing now will help them be more successful with their job search or with starting a business.

I tried to use examples of things that they could relate to such as social networking sites, television shows and video games. Personally, my eyes light up when someone talks about things I’m interested in and I start paying close attention, and this works for most people.

So as your prepare for your next presentation, spend some time considering whether or not you might be up against a disinterested audience. If you think it’s a possibility, then plan ahead and structure your presentation accordingly. A little work up front will pay off big in the end.

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