800 seater theatre. Only 25 people turn up for your keynote.
What would you do?

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A few years back, I was working with an entrepreneur who had been asked to deliver a keynote at a large start-up conference in London. Thousands of people were in attendance, speaking alongside them that day were the likes of Eric Schmidt who at the time was Chairman of Alphabet, Google's parent company, and the founders of Shazam and Deliveroo.

We'd spent the previous month preparing for the keynote, making sure that the message packed a punch and that they were ready to hold an audience of 800 people.

We arrived an hour before to get a feel theatre and thank goodness we did.

800 seats, with only 25 people sitting in them. All of whom were sat at the back of the room, disengaged.

The atmosphere was dead.

I won't name the keynote speaker, but they were the CEO of a company you will have all heard of. Full credit to them, the cameras were rolling so they just carried on as though the room was maxed out. On the surface, they looked and sounded good, but underneath, I've no doubt they were very unhappy with the circumstances they found themselves presenting in.

Luckily, we had time to hatch a plan.

What would you do if you found yourself in the same situation?

Learning how to handle situations like these is a skill that I've coined Performance Intelligence.

I cover it in all of my coaching programmes and it's a skill that's as applicable to a 5 person meeting at work, to delivering a keynote conference to hundreds of people.

The idea behind it is simple...

You could be the world's most charismatic, thought-provoking and inspiring presenter, but if you can't master your environment, all of your hard work will be for nothing.

Performance intelligence is all too often completely overlooked. The emphasis always seems to be on the speaker themselves - the clarity of their message, the conviction of their delivery and the psychological preparation to ensure that their nerves don't get the better of them on the day.

But the environment you're speaking in accounts for 50% of your presentation's success. It's about being able to create a connection with your audience irrespective of the number of people you're presenting to and the circumstances that you find yourself presenting in.

Last week, I found myself presenting in a tent! It was my first in-person workshop in 2.5 years and it was a great opportunity to sharpen my own performance intelligence.

In particular, my ability to manage the unknown - I had no idea how many people would show up (if any!) or what the set-up in the tent was going to be.

I arrived an hour before to find a tent, a table, 7 picnic benches and a few straw bales (which were spilling out of the tent itself.)

So here's what I did:

  • Moved the picnic benches closer to the 'stage' to create a more intimate environment.
  • Put on some background music to create a bit of energy and prevent early attendees from feeling awkward.
  • Then, when to my surprise people started to show up, I asked them to fill up from the front (initially, many of them sat on the straw bales outside of the tent). This resulted in complete strangers sharing picnic benches and starting to talk to each other. The tent started to warm up...
  • Finally, I made a point of speaking to as many of the attendees as possible. This helped me create a personal connection with the audience before we even started. It also meant I could find out why they were attending so I could tailor the workshop accordingly.

By the time we started, all the picnic benches were full and everyone was already talking to each other. It made my job so much easier! The hard work was done before we'd even kicked off.

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

The effort you put into creating the right environment for your audience is as important as what you're presenting and how well you're presenting it.

The same principle applies if you find yourself delivering a keynote in an 800-person auditorium to 25 people.

Create the right environment for your audience.

Here's what my client did...

They walked on stage and said...

'Before we start, I'd like every single one of you to stand up, pick up all your stuff and come and fill these two rows (gesturing to the front corner of the room). We do not need all this space!'

And then, they jumped off the stage and sat on it while everyone made their way to the front.

By bunching everyone together, the room suddenly felt busy. It created an intimacy between the speaker and the audience. The value of the impending keynote shot up. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Something else happened that we didn't predict...

Come the end of the keynote, the audience size had tripled. People walking in at the back of the theatre seeing a small bunch of people highly engaged at the very front of the room got curious and decided that they wanted a piece of the action.

There's a second lesson to be learned here, which is that audience size is nothing but an ego-driven metric.

It turns out that one of the original 25 who made their way to the front of the room was the Founder of the presentation software, Prezi. He was due to speak straight after and he opened his keynote with 'wow, how on earth am I going to follow that!' (No doubt also extremely grateful for the warm room he was about to present to).

Who is in the audience is far more important.

It only takes one person. Deliver a keynote that impresses and unthinkable opportunities could arise.

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