How to avoid alienating your ‘audience’

Do you ever find yourself at an event where the speaker gets your back up almost immediately? You might be at a conference where the speaker does the ‘I’m great and you are rubbish’ introduction or at a networking event where someone comes at you with the hard sell and shows no interest in you. What happens? Usually we stop listening.

In the last week I’ve had the chance to observe a number of speakers at work and compare how some get their audience onside and others alienate them from the outset. For example, one conference speaker opened her slot by telling us that there was a lot of negative energy in the room and that she could tell that by our body language. She argued when we told her we were cold! The room was cold; we had been in it all day and she had only arrived a few minutes before her session so it is insulting us to say we are wrong. There may well have been some negative body language, it was 3.30 on a Friday afternoon and we had been at a conference which did not deliver the speakers originally promised, or even some of those on the revised agenda, but to point the negativity out was insulting to the previous speakers. So having alienated us she then asked us to do some activities which were more training session than conference and without giving us a strong ‘what’s in it for you’ reason for the activities. No wonder my body language was negative!

Another speaker lost her audience by spending 20 minutes on her personal history and then telling us that too many people get caught up in their personal story when trying to win clients. She proved her point! A well known author upset his audience by treating a question with disdain. OK the question may have been ill thought out but there is no need to belittle the speaker in front of the entire room. Other speakers lost me when they talked down to me and treated me like I was still in primary school. However, before you think that I have wasted my entire week not listening to people, there were a couple of people who demonstrated how engaging an audience should be done. Who were they?

One was leading entrepreneur and BBC Dragon, Theo Paphitis and the other was Tamsin Fox-Davies of Constant Contact UK. I heard them at two very different events but both got it right for their audience. So what was it they did right? Well for a start they treated their audience with respect even when they were asked dumb questions. They both had humour and an ability to laugh at themselves. They shared their knowledge and experience in an engaging and honest manner. They gave their audience something worthwhile to think about and do. Neither went on a personal ego trip. So what are the lessons that the solopreneur or small business owner needs to remember?

  • First impressions count. Win your audience before you start insulting them (unless you are a comedian whose stock in trade is slinging insults at the audience).
  • Understand your audience. What do they do? What do they already know? What experience do they have? Why would they want to listen to you?
  • Treat your audience with respect whether or not they have earned it. Asking questions is a great way of letting those with experience access that knowledge whilst making a point to those who don’t know.
  • Use examples from other people not just yourself. In Britain we don’t respond well to massive self promotion.
  • Your audience is interested in ‘what’s in it for them’, they are not interested in what you want. Make it clear what they have to gain from listening but don’t be patronising. 
  • Keep it light. We are not all great at delivering jokes but we can include stories and anecdotes to keep our presentations interesting and our audience engaged.

For an example of a great presenter in action take a look at this video.

Few of us get it right all the time so I’ll be keeping a closer eye on my behaviour in future to ensure that I keep my audience on side whether I’m speaking one to one or to a larger audience. What will you be doing? Have you been put off by speakers or networkers? What did they do to upset you? Has someone really impressed you? What was it that they did? Please use the comment button to share your experiences.


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