I recently had dinner with Esther Stanhope, who’s a great speaker and coach and, as peers tend to do, we talked about our industry, and the subject wandered to ‘bad audiences’. I told her a short story about my own experiences with ‘bad audiences’ and Esther found it so delightful that she insisted I write it up – so here it is:
I started performing at a very young age and by the time I was 14, I was working at several ‘summer season’ hotels near to Bournemouth, rolling out my squeaky voice and shiny new magic tricks in a 20-minute cabaret.
Like many inexperienced performers, I didn’t understand then the best performing comes from doing the same thing over and over agian until it becomes excellent, so I was often trying out new material and tricks in front of a paying audience.
One evening, I made the big mistake of trying out too many new things in one set. Effectively, I was rehearsing in front of my audience. I’d become both lazy and arrogant.
The performance did not go well, and I left the stage feeling low. I knew I’d let myself down, I just didn’t (then) quite understand why).
As I walked along a corridor away from the stage area, I saw my agent walking towards me. He was a massive, cigar-smoking man called David Lever. Full of devilish charm and energy, he was one of those ‘characters’ the world seems to sadly lack these days.
I could see instantly that he wasn’t happy, so I panicked and said to him: ‘It was a bad audience tonight, wasn’t it?’
He looked at me and said ‘There’s no such thing as a bad audience, son’ and then walked off, leaaving me alone in the corridor with nothing but that hard fact to cling on to.
He was right, of course. Well – sort of.
Of course, there will be times when performers, speakers, and presenters will find certain audiences to be tougher than others – environmental conditions, internal politics, hunger and so on can really affect an audience’s mood and make them more or less receptive to what you’re doing.
However, the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a bad audience’ has always stayed with me, because it reminds me that it’s my responsiblity to make my performance work – and the same is true for anyone who stands up in front of an audience and demands their attention – whether you’re performing a magic cabaret, giving a keynote speech, delivering a quaterly update, or inspiring a team.
It’s not the audience’s job to pay attention, or remember, or laugh, or remember what you say – it’s your job as the communicator to make all those things happen.
I’ve benefited so much from repeating the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a bad audience, son’ to myself over the years. It’s one of those wonderful ideas where it doesn’t have to be true for it to be useful. Reminding myself of what I have control over when I prepare a presentation has brought enormous beenifts and enabled me to be more honest with myself and improve much more than otherwise.
Sadly, David is no longer with us, but I’ll always be grateful for his advice, delivered so frankly and with no sugar-coating.
Oh, and the picture above? Yes, that’s me at 14 – gorgeous, eh?