By Humorist Michael Broome (1991)
Of the 2500 audiences I have addressed, the majority of the meeting planners have done an excellent job. However, there have been a few who have seemed determined to create an environment in which I would “BOMB.” As a service to these few meeting planners, and to help them perform a more thorough demolition job on my competitors, I have devilishly devised a few simple ideas that can guarantee their next speaker’s failure.
Dear Meeting Planner: If you plan an after dinner speech, remember it is imperative for the speaker to grab your audience’s attention right from the start. Make sure your speaker is introduced while everyone is eating dessert. Very few audience members have the ability to give a speaker their full attention with a scrumptious dessert staring them in the face. Since most speakers like to open with a few jokes, hardly anyone will laugh with a mouth full of chocolate mousse. By helping the speaker’s first few jokes to fall flat, you are setting the mood for the remainder of the presentation.
If it’s not possible to introduce the speaker while the audience is still eating, at least do so while the tables are being cleared. The rattling of dishes, clanking of silverware, and movement of those cleaning up, assures a substantial loss of attention. For some reason known only to God and a few sociologists, a minimum wage busboy carrying an armload of dishes is more interesting to watch than a $5,000 speaker. Make full use of this phenomenon.
DO NOT suggest the audience take a restroom break before the speaker begins. This will INSURE that during the talk, people will be squirming, and exiting and entering the room. Men only go one at a time, but women are particularly disruptive because they go in groups of two or three – and sometimes entire herds will migrate to the powder room.
Serve a lot of liquor. Ideally, have an hour-long OPEN bar before the meal, accompanied with free-flowing wine throughout dinner. This creates a mentally dull audience. As a final genius idea, leave the bar open while the speaker is talking! The only thing more interesting to an audience than a bumbling busboy is a drunk stumbling out for another shot. Never forget: a hot stuffy room, especially when combined with lots of booze, is a sure way to transform any energetic group into a listless, droopy-eyed stupor. DO NOT make sure the room is a little extra cool before the meeting starts, for this would allow for the natural body heat to warm the room up to a comfortable temperature.
How to Space Out
Most importantly, whether at a banquet or in a theatre style seminar, make sure the audience is NOT seated close to each other or near the speaker. In remembrance of World War I, create an expansive “no man’s land” between the speaker and the first row of chairs or tables. This gap helps destroy any sense of intimacy. The psychology of group dynamics is ruled by a constant law that says, “People will always respond more in a packed house.” If you are going to have 200 people in attendance at a program, be sure to book a room with 300 – 400 additional seats. This guarantees that the front ten or fifteen rows or tables will be practically empty and everyone will spread out to the rear. NEVER, NEVER use “reserved” signs or tape along the aisles to block off the back rows. This would cause people to move to the front where they would feel more a part of the program. If the speaker suggests to you before the meeting that the audience needs to be ushered to the front as they are entering, assure him/her that you will do so AFTER they take their seats. Once seated in the rear, people are stubborn and will not move forward NO MATTER WHAT. So after you have irritated them by unsuccessfully urging them to move forward, be sure to let them know it was the speaker’s idea in the first place. This causes a wonderful animosity toward the speaker before the talk has even begun. Almost as though the audience is of one mind, they think, “Not only are we NOT going to move, but we aren’t going to respond either!”
If your speaker is animated and uses a lot of facial expression, make sure the podium is POORLY LIT. Speakers utilize a great deal of non-verbal communication, so keep them in the shadows. NEVER make use of spotlights. Point the ceiling lights in every direction but where the speaker stands. It is effective to display large bouquets of flower and giant potted plants around the lectern. This keeps the speaker from being accentuated, and assures proper camouflage.
Another splendid technique to destroy a speech is to book a hotel where there will be loud and energetic groups meeting simultaneously. Call the Chamber of Commerce. Find out what conventions will be in town. Particularly effective are religious denominations that speak in tongues. Book an adjacent room. Make sure your facility has one of those wonderful accordion-shaped “sound proof” movable walls. This way your audience gets to listen to several speeches at the same time…sort of like a “Three-Ring-Speaker’s Circus.” And, you only have to pay for one speaker!!!
If your audience is from out of town, and will be flying or driving a long distance from home, let your meeting run late. Introduce your speaker at about the time you were supposed to adjourn.
Equally debilitating is to have a lot of amateur speakers address the audience before you bring on the pro. Make sure you DO NOT set any time restrictions on the amateurs so that your audience will be thoroughly bored and ready to make a mass exodus when your “pro” is introduced. If you keep the pro waiting long enough, his/her awareness of the audience’s desire for adjournment will increase nervousness, cause him to talk too fast, forget his lines, and wish he were in another profession.
Remember, your job is to make sure that professional speakers really earn their money. DON’T make it easy for them.
Of final importance is the sound system. Amazing how some hotels spend a million dollars on a meeting room with beautiful murals, chandeliers, carpets, curtains, and then spend 25 bucks on a microphone. Book a hotel with this philosophy. After all, the reason people get together in the first place is to see and hear something. Make these two objectives difficult. DO NOT check the sound system beforehand. NEVER have a second mike on hand. Make sure the microphone you do have is “second hand,” and the P.A. system is set so a “feedback” problem occurs as soon as the speaker opens his mouth. In all probability, the speech will be over when someone from the hotel finally arrives to turn a simple dial. Of course you are in luck if they arrive while the speaker is ON. Turning the P.A. volume up and down during the middle of a speech will frustrate even the most seasoned speaker. If you do a great job of screwing up everything else, but you forget and provide a good sound system, a few members of your audience may still be able to pay attention.
Use these suggestions and a few creative techniques of your own. You can be one of the dissatisfied meeting planners who say, “You know, for some reason the speaker wasn’t quite as good as the last time.”