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Handling a low audience turnout with aplomb

Posted in Communication skills,Managing our emotions by Rashmi Datt on February 25th, 2012

Yesterday, I was at a Best Practices seminar organized by one of the reputed MBA colleges of India.

After the inaugural session when the Chief Guest and Guest of Honour had left, there was a tea break followed by a talk by Srikanth Surampudi, the Regional HR Head of one of the largest IT firms of the world on the ‘Role of HR in changing times’.

Unfortunately the packed hall (no doubt brought in by the presence of the Institute Head sitting on the dais with the other luminaries) has dissolved into the woodwork after the tea break. You won’t catch students (and perhaps faculty too) attending a ‘special address’ unless grades/life/graduation certificate is at stake. I was curious to see how this young, personable professional would handle the case of the dwindling audience.

I was reminded of another occasion a month ago when I attended a book release by an Eminent Author at a large bookstore. Unfortunately, as the writer lived in a different city, he had left it to the store management to generate publicity for the event. The outlet had sent out mailers to their customer list, but that’s leaving things to chance, and chance brought in a total of four women including me. The author was upset at this sparse attendance. He started his talk by remarking somewhat acidly: ‘if a Daler Mehndi were to be coming, people will eagerly come, but no one is interested in books…today’s young are ambitious, but frivolous. How can people be so uncaring of such good opportunities? They don’t know what they are missing…’.

You get the drift.

If his rant would have brought in more people, it would have served a purpose, but it didn’t. So Rule one: don’t make negative or caustic remarks, it only shows you in a pitiable light.

Rule two: Don’t allow the situation to put you down. If an inner voice in your head whispers: ‘Gee, this is so embarrassing, that people don’t want to hear me because I’m a nobody’, you are sure to feel de-energised. Because at times of stress, the inner voice speaks from old fears embedded into our heads, and offers a distorted perspective of reality. The truth is probably closer to ‘This attendance has nothing to do with me or my stature. People have their own priorities, and that’s fine. Let me make the best of the opportunity to connect with whoever is here, and enjoy it.’

So what did Srikanth do? He addressed the situation firmly and pleasantly. Commenting matter of factly: ‘I would ideally like more students to attend this session, they will benefit from it as I will talk about the future of HR. In the meanwhile, I will share some interesting information about our company while more members arrive’.

As he chatted amicably and kept the audience engaged, his tactful message had the effect. Messages were sent to the missing students who hastily arrived, to benefit from a very relevant and useful presentation.

Rule three: Nor should you ignore the empty hall, and plough on as though nothing is out of the normal. It’s perfectly acceptable for a speaker to say, ‘Let’s wait a few more minutes to see if more people come in.’ You could use those few minutes for a quick one-on-one interaction with the folk waiting. It’s an opportunity to build a personal bond with each member and understand why they are here.

If no other participants come to the room within 5-10 minutes while you are talking with attendees, you could say, ‘This is a great opportunity to have a closer and informal interaction with each other, rather than a one-way communication. Why don’t you all come up front’. You could even change the format and say, ‘ I think we’ll dispense with the screen and my formal presentation’, re-arrange a few chairs in a semi-circular pattern near the podium, sit in the center chair and say, ‘I’d prefer to share this information with you informally.’ You must be able to shift gears to have a more conversational interaction than a presentation.

Here is an interesting story of how Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer and pianist handled a similar situation. Liszt was announced to give two recitals on successive evenings in a small German town. At the first concert only a handful of people were present. ‘Instead of showing annoyance with those who did come’, wrote Sir Charles Stanford, the famous English composer in his book Pages from an Unwritten Diary , ‘as is usual with human- kind, he made a little speech, saying, that the room was very large and cold for so small a gathering, that he had an excellent instrument in his sitting-room at the hotel, where everyone would be more comfortable, and if they would do him the pleasure to come round there in half an hour when he had arranged for their reception, he would play them his program. They came and he provided them also with a champagne supper. At the next concert crowds were turned away at the doors, but there was no champagne.’

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