And the Crowd Goes Wilted: How Public Speakers Can Bounce Back

As a public speaker, John had done the work. His speech was edited and revised, edited and revised. There wasn’t a punctuation out of place, and every word was carefully chosen to drive maximum impact.

He made sure to include a few jokes, pauses, moments of levity. The speech was perfect. John was ready and carried with him all the high-minded ambitions one does when equipped with a speech of epic import.

He would deliver a speech that, he thinks, will cause a stir in the soul; a speech that will change minds; a speech that will go viral; a speech that could, perhaps become the definitive piece of oratory of the present historical epoch.

John took the podium. His intro was a success. The opening jokes landed and his natural charisma charmed the crowd. Things were going well. After a brief pause to allow the applause to cease and the laughter to die down, he started in on the real substance of his meticulously scripted masterpiece.

Not a word was out of place, and there was no reality in which John would allow himself to misspeak and blemish his shining contribution to the rhetorical canon. John met his own high expectations. Every word was delivered with the purpose he intended. What he hadn’t expected was the look of the crowd as he peered out from the podium. The same people he had wrapped around his finger just a few minutes ago during his breezy opening was now glassy eyed and aloof. He noticed a few people yawning. Heads were in hands. Many were slouching in whichever direction demanded the least possible effort.

Things were no longer going well.

If things didn’t turn around quickly, this speech was going to be the categorical opposite of what John had set out to deliver. It would become, John thought, the definitive piece of anti-oratory. A hideous case study of exactly what not to do.

Here’s how I’d advise John to get back on track and re-engage his audience:

Go off-script

It can be intimidating. You’ve spent so much time perfecting your message that any derivation seems doomed to make things worse. The opposite is true. You’ve spent the time, you have a mastery of the subject. I’d guess you surprise yourself with how naturally you’re able to pick up the thread once you go off-script. Try relating a personal story, something authentic that the audience can connect to.

Get out from behind the podium

You don’t have to be a statue up there. Standing still behind the podium gives your audience very little to respond to. Get out and walk around. We communicate so much with our body language. Use it to work the crowd. Some simple pacing can make a big difference with engagement levels and show your audience that you’re comfortable and confident.

Involve the audience

There are so many simple ways to do this. Call out specific audience members, invite them on stage with you, ask them to share stories or experiences related to your message. Take a show of hands poll. When you solicit engagement, most likely, you’ll get it. It might not happen en masse right away, but a few repeated attempts should gain back the audience attention you lost, and get your speech back on track.

These simple strategies have worked for me during audience lulls in the past. It happens to every public speaker. The great ones know what it takes to bounce back. Ultimately, it comes down to knowing what it takes for effective communication. Could your organization use communication coaching? Let’s get in touch: