Public Speaking Myths: There’s No Such Thing as a Dead Audience.

You’re giving your presentation but the audience just isn’t reacting. They’re distracted and not showing any emotion at all. Was it something you did? While it’s very possible that you may have put your audience to sleep, this happens only on rare occasions as most audience members are professional enough to at least pretend to be interested. If the audience is completely comatose, chances are that you’re not the reason.

I know many speaking experts say that if you’re truly a good speaker, you can revive any audience. I don’t know if they say it to make it seem like being an effective speaker is a big accomplishment or if they’ve just always experienced lively audiences. But regardless, that statement is far from true. There are several situations that happen beyond the control of the speaker that can put the audience in a dull state. Here are some possible reasons the audience might not be paying attention to you:

  • They recently received bad news such as job cuts or death of someone affiliated with the group.
  • They’ve been subjected to one long program after another and are physically tired.
  • They’ve had a big meal and drank alcohol.
  • The room is uncomfortable (too hot, to cold, etc…) to the point where it’s a major distraction.

It would be interesting to see how these folks who say that they can revive any audience would handle a group of folks who’ve drunk too much and are passing out. Perhaps they have some secrets they can share with the rest of us.

But in all seriousness, the reason why many speaking experts make these silly statements is that they fail to realize one key point about speaking: when you give a speech, it’s about the audience and not about you. Many speakers enjoy speaking because of the way it feels after giving a talk that goes well. This is one of the things that I personally love about speaking. But there’s a fine line between working for the audience (or the event planner that hired you) and working for your own ego. It’s human to want to have people engaged and sitting at the edges of their seats listening to every word you say, but that’s not always the outcome that speakers should be working towards.

So these folks base their opinion about how well a speech goes solely on audience reaction. In this case, no reaction equals ultimate failure. But again, everyone is different and reacts to things differently. Not everyone is bubbly and feels comfortable expressing themselves. Some people have a quiet demeanor and like to sit back and absorb information.

So what happens when you encounter a dead audience? Try to revive them using attention getting devices such as jokes, stories or questions. Keep in mind that some people like to just sit back and listen, so just because they’re not interacting with you doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

If you know ahead of time that the audience received news that’s got them out of sorts, then ask the event planner if it’s okay to change topics (assuming you’re able to). Sometimes, talking with the audience about what’s going on is more appropriate than your topic – and if you’re able to work bits and pieces of your topic into the talk, that’s great.

Tony Robbins once shared his story of where he was when the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred. He was delivering one of his programs in Hawaii when people in his audience began receiving calls and text alerts about the attacks. Now whether or not you personally like Tony Robbins or his material, you have to admit he’s one of the most engaging speakers. But even he couldn’t sit there and talk about personal development at that particular time. So instead they all had a conversation about what was going on. Now did Tony have everyone engaged? I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure, but I would suspect that at least a few folks (especially if they were concerned about a loved one) were probably not paying attention to Tony.

Now if changing the topic isn’t an option, your choices are to deliver the talk as planned (perhaps in shorter form) or to reschedule. Only you can decide which option works best for your situation. I’m not suggesting that you let yourself off the hook for a speech that doesn’t go so well, but I am saying that you should take a good look at the situation if things don’t go as planned.

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4 thoughts on “Public Speaking Myths: There’s No Such Thing as a Dead Audience.

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  3. Tim Ackerman

    Strong post!

    I strongly agree, in public speaking it is not just about you (not only about your subject or your speech) it is about the audience. You can say that you have an effective public speaking speech if you can see through the eyes of your audience that they learn something on your speech (this is much rewarding on your part).

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