An expectant audience waiting for the speaker

How to get the audience on your side as a speaker

As a speaker, one thing that you really want is for the audience to want to hear what you’ve got to say.

But what if you’re nervous?

What if you’re worried the audience doesn’t really care?

Here’s the start of two speeches, and how they both got the audience onside:

On 5th June 2008, Harry Potter author JK Rowling was invited to give the commencement address to the graduates at Harvard University. The commencement ceremony is where approximately 32,000 students celebrate their graduation, and that’s not to mention the many thousands more friends, family members, and university staff that are also in attendance. Many try and avoid the crowds by watching on big screens.

This was how JK Rowling opened:

“President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you’.

Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour – but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation. Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners, and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.”

A few months after JK Rowling stood before the crowd at Harvard, yours truly gave a short talk to a group of local entrepreneurs and business people at a golf club in Bushey, Hertfordshire. There were about 20 people in the room – some of whom were indifferent to the fact that I was speaking to them that day, while the rest actively didn’t want to listen at all. Yes, the realities of working with some networking groups…

This was how I opened:

“Food shopping in our household has got a lot more hit and miss recently. Where once I would browse the supermarket shelves safe in the knowledge that what I picked up for dinner would be not only eaten but also welcomed, life has changed in the 13 weeks since Hannah became pregnant. A typical exchange goes something along these lines:

‘What would you like for dinner this evening love?’

‘Oh I don’t know – get anything that looks nice.’


Returning home with my carefully selected meal, I’m invariably greeted with ‘I can’t stomach the thought of that!’, before trudging back to the shop to have another go.”

Two different speeches in two very different situations – but linked by one common thread. In both cases, the speaker got the audience onside very quickly.

Watch JK Rowling’s talk on YouTube: you hear the laughter start when she mentions the fear and nausea she’s endured – and then there’s a big laugh as she talks about losing weight. More laughter and cheering comes when she makes the joke about the Gryffindor convention.

JK Rowling successfully gets the audience onside – even for someone as famous as her, it’s clear that she’s nervous about the speech (and let’s face it, it’s ok to feel nervous with a crowd of more than 70,000 people!). She does this by getting them laughing, and taking the situation away from the moment to talk about something most people think about on a regular basis (losing weight).

I’m afraid my talk doesn’t have 5.8 million views on YouTube (at the time of writing) – it wasn’t even filmed at all. You’ll have to take my word on the fact that they were an awkward crowd – but again, the opening of the talk brought them onside.

Here was I, talking about food shopping (not what they expected to hear), as well as the fact that I’d told them I was going to become a Dad soon. The former everyone could empathise with, and the latter – most had experienced that situation too. So they started listening.

They were expecting me to tell them something that they needed to do. But it’s very difficult to give instructions to a group of entrepreneurs. Think about it – these are people that don’t work for someone else. They like control of their own destiny. They don’t like being told what to do.

So if I wanted to get through to them, I needed to grab their attention, and get them empathising with what I was saying. I could then use that as an analogy for that I really wanted to say (I was focusing on the importance of being specific when networking).

So what about you?

How do you get the audience onside when you’re doing a talk?

Using humour, empathy, and surprise are just some of the ways to do it – but however big or scary the audience are, showing some of your human side is a good way to start.