How Small Is Too Small for an Audience?
Google Strategist Scott Jenson apparently walked out of a conference last week – The Internet of Things Expo in San Francisco – where he was supposed to speak, complaining that an audience of about 50 people was too small.
First of all, if the news item is true, congratulations to Scott for becoming a diva even before he’s earned it as a professional speaker. Most people develop diva habits after they’ve become highly regarded, well known, highly paid professional speakers, so Jenson shows courage in putting the attitude before the accomplishment. He’d be right at home on that show – what’s it called? – Toddlers and Tiaras?
There’s a further irony in that Jenson apparently invited himself to speak in the first place, a delightful fact which adds a soupcon more to his diva status.
Second, his diva-esque actions raise an interesting question: is there an audience size that is in fact too small – where you should (as a professional) refuse to speak? After all, the contract a speaker makes with a conference organizer assumes that the organizer will deliver the audience and the speaker will deliver the speech. It’s an essential quid pro quo that drives the whole business.
So what should a speaker do if the conference organizer doesn’t deliver the audience? Should she still give the speech?
And what is that magic cutoff point?
Sorry, Scott – the answer to the first question is that if even one person shows up, you should honor your contract, or your verbal agreement, or whatever, by talking to that person.
That said, the size of the audience does affect how you interact with the participants.
But Scott wasn’t even close. The magic cutoff number is six. Six people or more is a speech. Five or fewer is a conversation.
I once worked with a wonderful speaker, brilliant and professional in all respects. She was invited to give a speech as part of a series of talks contracted with a company that was going to deliver audiences in a number of cities.
The company did its advertising and promotion, and confidently told us to expect roughly 500 people. The good organizers reserved a nice auditorium capable of holding the requisite number.
The night came and we met the speaker at the venue about two hours beforehand, to give us a chance to check the space out, test the sound, and so on.
The organizer rep met us, we ran through all the preparation, and settled in the green room to wait for the big moment. About 30 minutes beforehand I went out to look at the house, when the doors were opened.
There was no one there.
I was a little alarmed, but sometimes audiences are of the last-minute variety, so I hung in there, merely remarking to the rep that the house “wasn’t filling up.”
She said, “don’t worry, it will be fine!”
Ten minutes beforehand there was still no one there.
Now everyone was looking a little worried. And puzzled.
By start time, six people showed up. So my client gave the speech. Actually, two members of the audience were my wife and I, so only four people showed up.
What we should have done was sit down and have a conversation with those four people, but we made the decision to go ahead and give the speech. It was being videoed and we wanted the tape – even though the audience reaction shots were sadly lacking. The effect was a little eerie, but the fearless four members of the audience enjoyed the select show.
The point is, it’s not about the numbers, in the end. It’s about the people. Four people bothered to show up, so they deserved to have that conversation (or speech). A professional gives the speech – or conversation – holding up her end of the bargain, even if the organizer failed at the other end.
In the Case of the Great Client and the Missing Audience, it turned out that the organizers had woefully underestimated the amount of effort required in terms of promotion to draw an audience. In particular, they were expecting college students, yet offered the speech the week when the college students were on break. Dumb.
In your case, if you find yourself in the exciting position of getting ready to speak to an audience that isn’t there in strength, you should still give the speech. If there are five people or fewer, sit down and say, “What a wonderful opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with some really passionate people! Let’s talk!”
Then get everyone to introduce themselves, and answer the question, what brings you to the event – what’s your interest?
If there are six people or more, then keep it semi-formal and give your speech. You can still personalize it by asking people to introduce themselves. But the magic number is six – you’re on. Go for it.
And Scott, if the story is true, and there are no extenuating circumstances, you need to get over yourself. Fifty people is a respectable crowd in any universe.