The 20/60/20 Rule — Or Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Frowns in the Audience

Regardless of whether you’re an experienced speaker or a newbie, the thing you’re most likely to fear is the hostile face in the audience, the person who just doesn’t seem to care or who maybe, possibly hates every word you’re saying. Passive, hostile faces are the bane of every speaker, because they’re so very easy to latch onto. Smiles come and go, but frowns are forever. Or that what is feels like from stage, at least.

I’ve often been asked about how I deal with this, and what one is supposed to do with a hostile audience. More often than not, I’ve answered by referencing my old idea of the 20/60/20 rule. This, in all it’s simplicity, is the following:

In every audience, there will be 20 percent of listeners who don’t really like you all that much.

It’s not personal, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your performance or your message. They may dislike the situation they’re put in, they may be worried about their marriage, they may hate the fact that you’re younger or older or a different gender from them. It doesn’t really matter. There will always be those in the audience with axes to grind and other places they’d rather be, and this is only a problem if you make it into one.

Conversely, in every audience, 20 percent of listeners will really, really like you.

This is not because you’re awesome. You might be, and I have no reason to suspect you’re not, but this isn’t why some people will love you no matter what. Rather, it’s a law of nature that regardless of your message (work more/work less/be more focused/daydream more), some will find it innately attractive. Also, most audiences really don’t want you to fail, so you’ll have the sympathy of a chunk of the audience on your side before you’ve even started.

In most audiences, 60 percent could go either way.

What I’m trying to say here is that as long as you’re not trying to alienate your audience, you’ll always have fans. Also, unless you’re a re-incarnated demi-god, not all of your audience will love you. In fact, it is my experience that only the most vapid, platitude-laden speeches get top marks from everyone — because you can trick people into believing they’ve heard something deep and insightful for just enough time to have them fill in their review cards. If everyone loved you, that’s a failure right there, because you that’s proof positive you didn’t challenge them…

But how does this relate to the actual speaking? Simple. Look for frowns, and you’ll find them. In fact, looking for them will guarantee that you notice more and more of them, and if you’re like most people, this will zap some of your energy, making your speech just a little flatter, just a little less zingy.

Looking for the smiles and nods, on the other hand, will help you draw energy out of those who want to give it to you, enabling you to ignore the inevitable frowns. Hopping from smile to smile will also make it easier for you to make eye contact with members in the audience who are not yet fully engaged, and hook them up to the positive energy you’ve found in the room. The thing with positive energy is that it has a tendency to multiply, and you, as the speaker, are the conduit for this.

“–But what about the frowns?” I hear you ask. Well, what about them? They’re always be there. Learn to accept them, as a fact of life. Don’t spend unnecessary energy trying to make a person going through a terrible divorce smile at your speech. Don’t try to make a person who dislikes you on general principle come around. They might, if you’re really good, but spend your energy where it does the most good.

To this comes a delightful little addendum. You, as a speaker, don’t always know what the look on an audience-member’s face means. People are different, and they listen differently. I learnt this myself in the funniest of ways.

I was giving a speech in Sweden, at an internal event. The room was good, the vibe was nice. Most of the audience comes in in what seemed like an expectant mood, the rest of the program was good, and the atmosphere was pretty much ideal. I launch into my talk, and immediately feel that this is a good audience. No need to look for the smiles, they are all around. In fact, most of the audience, closer to 80 percent, seem really into it. There are a few frowns, as there always are, but most of these seem more bored or befuddled than actively hostile. Except one.

Up front, but to the side, sits an older man. He doesn’t just frown, he looks like he is seething. His forehead is furrowed, and he doesn’t just stare, he glares. Since the rest of the audience is well and truly in my hands at this point, I make a little point out of engaging with him as well — a little look, a gesture his way. He only seems to become more intensely angry. I decide not to provoke him, and continue in my normal manner. As often happens, I come to the end of my talk, to tumultuous applause. There are two questions, one of which I handle adequately and another I (quite by accident) give a perfect answer to, linking it to an ongoing discussion in the company.

After this, people break up for coffee. I chat briefly to the CEO, and as I do so, I notice that the angry man is waiting to come up and talk to me. This happens more often than you’d think. I assume he wants to tell me that I’m stupid and that my talk was garbage, and already prepare to just smile and take it. I steel myself, take a few steps in his direction, and reach out with my hand. He shakes it, looks me directly in the eyes, and says “I just wanted to say that I think that was the best speech I’ve ever heard, and I really wish the company takes this to heart. This is exactly the problems we’re having, and if you’d let me, I’d like to tell you a story about this over coffee?”

To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. Turns out that this man was so engaged with the topic I was talking about, he had listened with an intensity that I’d misread as anger. Instead, he’d memorized great parts of the talk, and had a wonderful story about how his company had failed to capitalize upon an innovative idea to share with me.

The lesson? Don’t fear the frown, and seek out good energies where you can find them.
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