Monday, May 14, 2007

Growth Night

Tonight I will give you a quick lesson in public speaking and crowd dynamics. It really is an amazing phenomenon. I have learned a lot about it in the past dozen or so years. And I sure didn’t learn by reading about it in a book. I learned the hard way.

After a fun-filled family weekend (with a speaking engagement sandwiched in at noon on Saturday), I find myself tonight in an Atlanta hotel to catch an early flight in the morning to Oklahoma City. After I left the office today, I stopped off on the way for a speaking engagement. It was brutal. I’ve seen crowds have more fun at funeral visitations than I saw tonight. Nothing against the people in the crowd mind you. But every now and then I get a crowd like tonight. And I am glad they are few and far between. If not, I would definitely stick to blogging.

When I left there tonight I was exhausted. In case you don’t know - a speaker that entertains feeds off the crowd before him. The audience feeds off each other. If you are a speaker and the crowd is not feeding, you better be able to move in another direction in a hurry. I had to do that tonight. You have to give the crowd what they want. They want serious – you give them serious. And I sure did feel better when I got to serious tonight.

I have ways of testing the audience. I have a few jokes that usually bring the house down. If I tell one of those early on and the crowd doesn’t react like some I’ve seen I know it will be an interesting night. You can also tell a lot about the crowd during the preliminaries. If the crowd is laughing and having fun I start getting charged up. If they are quiet and reserved before I get up, I start thinking about plan B.

But I can usually tell how the crowd will be as soon as I walk into the room. If you are thinking about going in the public speaking business let me give you some pointers.

First the more packed the room the better. For example if you have 200 people in a room that seats 1000 you are in trouble. There are too many distractions. And it is very difficult to connect with the crowd. But if you have 200 people in a room that seats 150 - watch out. You can rock and roll.

And if the podium or stage is a long way from the crowd you will have your work cut out for you. Sometimes in those situations I choose to get off the stage to get closer to the crowd. Maybe I should have done that tonight. If the crowd is uncomfortable you will be uncomfortable at the podium. In other words, if you have a group of people who are wearing suits and are dressed up who usually do not wear suits and get dressed up it will be a long night. The nervous crowds are too busy making sure there clothes are on right or making sure they do not pass gas after the large meal.

Speaking of the large meal, I’ve had IBS kick in few times as I was seating at the head table. One night I excused myself before I was to be introduced to look for the restroom. I went into a large hall and realized the restroom was not in that hall. I frantically came back in the banquet room to get back to the restroom. When I came back in to find the door to the restroom, the guy at the podium saw me and thought I was ready and introduced me to come to the podium. That may have been the shortest speech I’ve ever given.

I remember the night several years ago I arrived to speak to what I thought was a church youth conference. They were about 1000 strong. When I got there they were having a rock concert. I was wondering how in the world they would transition from the concert to a motivational speaker. That night the loud music suddenly stopped, the lights went off and a strobe light started flashing. An announcer in World Wide Wrestling tone introduced me, “Laaaadies and gentlemen, all the way from Reynolds, Georgia…comedian Bruce Goddard. First of all there is a lot of difference in a humorist/motivational speaker and a comedian. But that night I had to be a comedian. I told IBS stories.

And there was another night when a man who was dying with cancer gave a 15 minute farewell speech to his friends right before I got up. Everybody in the room was crying (including me). It was really difficult trying to be a funny undertaker that night.

I also had to speak to a large crowd in an Atlanta hotel on September 12, 2001. Not only was the hotel like a ghost town due to the terrorist attacks, the crowd wasn’t exactly excited to hear a funny undertaker. Somehow I pulled that one off.

Thankfully 90% of my speaking engagements have been highly charged fun filled events. I suppose if that was not true, I would not continue to get speaking invitations. Sometimes for various reasons things don’t work out exactly like you planned.

I can tell you as a speaker when I stand in front of an audience I put myself out on a limb. It’s been quite a ride and I’ve had the time of my life. And I’ve also been stretched a few times but I think I have grown from the adversity.

Tonight was growth night.

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