How Small Is Too Small for an Audience?

Google Strategist Scott Jenson apparently walked out of a conference last weekThe 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.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    I asked Dan Pink what he had to do to get to where he was today in the top ranks of leadership speakers. One of the things he mentioned was that in the early days, he would speak to any group bigger than 1.That stuck with me and was very helpful to me in my early days when crowds were thin.
    I believe that if you are committed to the message then you appreciate who shows up, no matter the #. Maybe you just need the practice?! You also have no idea of the role those few might play in enriching your life/career.
    That said, your point about conversation vs speech is good advice.
    As to the google guy, no comment! You said it all and well.

  2. says

    Sting tells the story if how The Police achieved their first break in America:

    Only 6 people showed up in a club that could fit 200 and the band decided to play. They introduced everyone in the room to each other and played a super-sharp set. It turns out that one of the people in the audience was a dj on a prominent radio station…

  3. Jonathan Gullery says

    That’s why I like your stuff Nick — you (IMO) get it right. Its NEVER about the speaker, its ALWAYS about the audience. I think your posts and books consistently hammer that point home.
    Its so easy to obsess about presentation details, finessing the script or message, and fiddling with the graphics. So hard to really get into the audience’s head and figure out what scares them, what excites them, and why the heck they bothered to turn up for a talk to begin with.
    The other day on the subway there was a guy busking. Playing the blues. Great. He wasn’t asking for money (though the hat was out), he didn’t do the normal NY subway pitch, he was just delivering great, heart-felt music that was actually moving people. Guess what — he was making money, and we got off the shuttle talking with each other about what a great musician this guy was.
    It wasn’t about ‘my pitch,’ my cause, my problem, it was about “hey people — here’s a gift for you.”
    Scott Jensen (and me too from time to time) just forgot that this is only and always has been about interaction, about relationship. Thanks for speaking plain truth on this.

  4. says

    Love this! And very timely, as last night I spoke to five people. It was a college class and I knew going in the “crowd” would be small—there are only seven in the whole class. But I started exactly how you said. I let people introduce themselves, talk about their goals and what they were interested in learning. Then we did a hybrid presentation/conversation.

    This also reminds me of my theater days. In Chicago storefront theater, the unwritten rule in deciding whether the “show must go on” is if the audience has fewer people than the cast, you cancel. But not always—especially in a small venue and/or with a big cast. Anyway, it’s a horrible feeling backstage seeing only a handful of people in the audience, but I swear some of the best shows I’ve been a part of were for just four or five people. Something special happens. Maybe it’s more intimate, like a command performance. Or maybe they’re rooting for you more.

    So, yes, let the show go on!

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Rob, thanks! I wanted to hear more — how did that class go? I assume it went very well:-) And thanks for the insight from Chicago theatre — one of the hotspots in the world for great theatre and Improv!

  5. mike grenby says

    good – and encouraging – advice, nick, thanks. my uni has phased out our 15-year-old public speaking core course as part of a core subject revision, so only students already enrolled at the university will be allowed to take the subject over the next couple of semesters.
    as a result, enrolment dropped from 170 to 15 and i expect even fewer next semester. so i will definitely be focusing on the “let’s have a conversation” approach as the classes drop below the magic six.
    that’s ok for me as the instructor, but the problem is, how can the students practise and give their speeches to such a small audience? i’m toying with the idea of going to toastmasters’ club meetings if i can make arrangements for the handful of students to take part.
    but do you have any thoughts on what the students should do if they have to speak to only three or four others in the class? they really do need to practise the skills required for speaking to larger audiences.
    thanks, nick. cheers, mike

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Sorry, Mike, to hear about the short-sightedness of your uni! Public Speaking is such an essential skill that only academic perversity cuts it out of the curriculum.

      What to do? You’re going to have to get creative. Toastmasters is a good idea — I would start a chapter focused on the course, and invite the public in — you might get your audience that way. Another idea is to offer a “showcase,” i.e., run a public session one night where you advertise and promote it as a chance to hear “future greats” in the public speaking world. Another is to work with other professors (always a challenge, I know) who have large classes and ask them to make presenting a part of their curriculum. So the students have to give a speech in those classes on a particular topic instead of writing a paper. Then you can cross-reference the talks to your own class. A fourth idea is to create a local Hyde Park Corner, a public space on campus or in town where the students put out a step stool, climb up on it, and start speaking, with an eye to attracting a crowd. You learn very fast about how to grab and hold an audience’s attention doing that (as do the speakers at Hyde Park Corner). You might want to alert the local authorities if you try that:-)
      Good luck!

      • mike grenby says

        good ideas, thanks nick – especially the hyde park corner one which would be the easiest to organize. we already have a “toga speech”: they have to dress in a toga and stand on a podium under the main campus arch to deliver a special occasion speech. i could do a few more of those without the togas, and encourage former public speaking students to come by to form an audience and hopefully provide some brief written feedback.

  6. Susan de la Vergne says

    I once spoke to an audience of three people. I started out “speaking,” and once I’d opened the topic, we moved into conversation. It was very fun. And unlike audiences of 50 or 150, I got to know all three of them and am still in touch with one of them. That never happens in a big group. Scott missed his chance.

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Thanks, Susan — wonderful point. Sting found his DJ and fame, you made real, enduring friends — these are the benefits of small audiences!

  7. Mark Gruwell says

    I can give an example. During my third year of teaching paralegal studies, I had a class of one — yes, one. I concluded that the student paid a good amount of tuition to be in the class (Torts & Litigation), so I delivered the class with the same dedication, even though it required even more preparation time. In the end, I’m convinced that the student received an excellent class because it was more of a “conversation” than a “lecture.” We covered a substantial amount of material — and in more detail, not to mention the ability to focus on particular areas of interest.

    My only other example is when I did amateur stand-up comedy between undergraduate and law school. I once had an audience of about five. It was a humbling experience!

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