I was a retailer in Houston for almost 20 years before becoming a keynote speaker. Our mindset in the retail world—“the customer is always right” that we borrowed from Nordstrom and Warren Buffet—has stayed with me even throughout my speaking career. Many times when a speaker delivers an uninspiring performance, they blame the audience’s lack of energy or sense of humor. In my experience, the key to a speaker’s success has always been audience engagement.
Here’s the thing: any speaker can do the easy shows, but it takes the true professional to pull through rough situations with a successful presentation.
I’ve had my share of speaking challenges, such as the time a car hit a transformer and knocked out the electrical power across Grapevine, Texas, shutting done all power during my opening keynote to 3,000 people.
More recently, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a prestigious annual awards event honoring the top businesses in Houston. I was really excited and a little nervous at the same time. Close to 1000 people would be there celebrating their achievements. I wanted to give them the best that I had. The event planners gave me 45 minutes. I worked on the program shaving off and adding sections that would be entertaining to this particular audience.
The AV check was scheduled for 4:00 PM with reception doors opening at 5:00 and the event beginning at 6:00. I got there around 3:30, and the room looked fantastic. The team was ready for me, but they had made a last-minute decision to shorten the entire event, cutting my keynote down to 20 minutes. Who knew the Astros were going to be playing the 7th game of the World Series that night?
By 4:45 attendees began arriving to a jazz band and several open bars in the reception area. They were having a great time before the doors opened at 6:00.
6:30 came and it was Show Time!
I was sitting at the head table directly in front of the stage. When the first speaker began, I noticed that the room was a little frisky and the audience continued to carry on their table conversations. The chatter continued with the next presenter, and I thought, “Surely, they would get it out of their system by the time I got up to present.”
That did not happen…
I opened with a fun piece and they laughed loudly … and I kept on truckin’. The room chatter was so loud at times that I couldn’t hear myself think, so I decided to go with the flow and just have a good time. I think I did put my finger to my lips and shushed ’em a time or two. Also, I do remember telling them to “Listen, because this part is really good!” But the sweat was pouring off me!
When it was over, the event planner and her team came up to me, thanking me for a job well done. Needless to say, I was shocked! I replied, “Next year, you might think about getting a comedian.” They responded, “We did! We got you!” and added, “This happens every year, the audience is excited they won, but we watched your videos and knew you could handle them.”
As I walked out many people came up to me. They asked for my card and told me they loved the presentation, the slides, the music—the whole thing. You never know!
Audience Engagement Works
Thinking back on the night, the one thing that I have learned over the years is to never blame the audience. The speaker is responsible! It is the speaker’s job to take control of the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s the speaker’s job to rise to the occasion.
When things don’t go as planned, we speakers tend to blame the audience. We say things like, “they were left-brained engineers with no personality, or they were tired from the night before, or totally disengaged”
When we stop to examine the presentation and what happened. We often fail to think about what we could have done to make the performance more successful. The speaker is the one responsible! It is the speaker’s job to take control of the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. As we say in retail, “The customer is always right!”
Every speaker has a bad day … or night. Hopefully, yours won’t involve a room of 1000 people or more!
Karen McCullough is a nationally known keynote speaker and expert on change, generational opportunities and workforce trends.
Karen helps organizations cut through the generational biases and get back to reality by leveraging their team’s strengths, enriching the work environment, and driving better results. Each of her presentations brings a realistic perspective on workplace trends, employee engagement, while offering actionable content.
For the past 15 years Karen has shared her insights to top organizations such as VMware, Procter & Gamble, US Department of Justice, JPMorgan Chase, Symantec, McGraw-Hill, National Homebuilders, Shell Oil, Mercedes Benz, The World Bank, American National Insurance, Humana, United Way, American Heart Association and MD Anderson Cancer Center.