Public Speaking: Your Smallest Audiences Deserve Your Biggest Effort

Having a low turnout for a speaking event can be disappointing. You might even feel like it’s a waste of your time to give your full presentation. Here’s why you should put your best effort into even the smallest audiences.

Most of us have spoken to small audiences–sometimes disappointingly small. Deflated, we might have felt our enthusiasm disappearing: “This little group,” we muttered to ourselves, “is hardly worth the effort.”

Yet let’s examine the approach taken by two of the greatest performers in show business history–Bob Hope and his frequent comedic partner Jerry Colona. Colonel Gerald Graham hosted them during World War II when they came to a New Guinea Army base to entertain the troops.

After their performance to 5,000 soldiers, the colonel escorted the entertainers back to the barracks. “Bet you’re hungry after that long show,” he said. “Want a sandwich?”

“Sure do,” they answered.

“Then follow me back to the kitchen.”

When they arrived, the colonel instructed them to tell the two cooks what they wanted. After placing his order, Bob Hope asked the cooks, “You fellows see the show?”

“No sir,” they replied, “we couldn’t. We had to stay here on duty.”

Bob and Jerry stepped aside for a minute. They spoke to each other with whispered tones. Turning back to the cooks, they asked, “Well, would you like to see the show now?

Quite surprised, the soldiers replied, “Of course we would.”

Then Bob Hope and Jerry Colona performed the entire show, including the musical parts (minus the band).

In remembering the event, Colonel Graham said, “I learned what true, dedicated entertainers Bob and Jerry were. Obviously, they considered an audience of any size–even two people–worth their best effort.”

There’s a grand lesson there for every speaker. We should consider an audience of two or twenty people equally as significant–and deserving–as an audience of two hundred or two thousand.

To make the most of your opportunities with a small audience, follow these pointers:

  • Keep your attitude positive. Recognize that this audience has given you some treasured gifts. One is their time, the hour they will listen to you and the hours it took them to get there. Another is their respect, which their invitation indicated directly–and which they will confirm as they listen intently. Be grateful for their gifts and give them, most sincerely, your top-tier content and delivery
  • Avoid saying to anyone, especially your host, that you are dejected about the number who came to the event. If you refer to the crowd at all privately or publicly, praise them for coming. You might even clap and get them to join you in applauding themselves.
  • Be sure your nonverbal communication is as upbeat and positive as it would be for a crowd ten times this size.
  • Meet every audience member before you begin, and chat for a minute as you cannot do with a thousand attendees. Imagine the boost in expectation and support when you have greeted each individual personally.
  • Introduce more interactive exercises–related to your topic of course–than you might use ordinarily. Some who would be too shy to voice their opinions to a packed auditorium will become quite vocal among twenty people. Welcome the likelihood of greater input, and facilitate it vigorously.
  • Give your complete, unabridged presentation, as Bob Hope and Jerry Colona did.
  • Offer more extensive follow up that you couldn’t offer for a massive group. “Please take my business card afterward, and feel free to call me next week with any one specific question you’d like to discuss with me. I’ll be glad to talk with each of you for ten minutes, to see how I can address the one problem or issue you’ll describe.” Everybody won’t take you up on your generous offer, but all of them will welcome your willingness to help after the meeting.

A final reminder: When you watch speakers address many thousands of listeners in a packed assembly, you can be sure they didn’t start at that level. Instead, they spoke to many dozens of small audiences, giving them their finest information and liveliest delivery. Only so did they earn the opportunity to keynote major events.

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