3 Ways to Maximize Your Guest Speaker’s Impact

You’ve been tasked with finding, vetting, and hiring a guest speaker for your meeting, conference, or seminar and you want to make sure the audience gets the most out of the experience. There are an endless supply of speakers you can hire, but you’ve narrowed it down to the one you think best fits the bill. You’ve seen many speakers – some good, some not-so-good, so you want to be sure the audience receives the presentation as both you and the speaker intend. Here are a few ways to make sure you and your speaker knock it out of the park.

1. Be clear with your audience what they should expect

Make sure the speaker has sent you a summary that explains the premise and purpose of the presentation – complete with audience takeaways, a concise biography, a link to their website, and a video link. Then, post all of these to an email to your potential attendees or some sort of event page, that way the audience has is fully aware what is about to happen. As a speaker who employs humor in a way that pulls no punches on the current status quo of the modern workplace, I have received feedback from previous clients stating the audience was offended by some of my content. Each time, the client provided merely my name and the title of the presentation without any further context. Being clear about what people should expect will save the audience from attending a presentation that may be uncomfortable, uninteresting, and irrelevant to them, while saving you the hassle of negative feedback along the lines of, “The speaker is not what I expected. Wish he had told fewer jokes.”

2.  Allow the speaker to use his or her own A/V upon request

If the speaker asks to use their own computer for a slideshow, it may be out of the ordinary for you, but there is a good reason why they made this request. LET THEM USE THEIR OWN EQUIPMENT. Every time past clients have requested I run my slideshow off of their computer, I have run into technical difficulties. I have had downloaded fonts I use in slideshows get reformatted on the new computer, jamming the on-screen text into a jumbled mess. Once, the font I used got reformatted into Wingdings on the new computer, so a very information-heavy slide looked like a Hieroglyphic-laden joke and I had to take the time to explain that it wasn’t intended that way. My presentations also incorporate music, which, when I have to run them off of another computer, I have to disrupt the flow of the presentation to play the music off of my phone.  My presentation files are also take up hundreds of megabytes in storage space and have frozen and even crashed a previous client’s PC laptop. I warned them, but they insisted. This note is for your convenience as much as that of the speaker. It may take a moment to switch the projector from your slideshow to the speaker’s, but I promise it’ll be worth it in the end. Put your A/V specialist (or the guy who knows what plugs go where) in contact with the speaker and allow them to communicate their needs. Remember to have the speaker arrive early.

3. Do not introduce the speaker while the audience is eating

Do you want your audience to get the most out of your speaker? Of course you do, but it’s tough to truly place 100% of your focus on the information the speaker is sharing when they’ve got a build-your-own taco in front of them. I get it, you want to kill two birds with one stone and maximize your time, but it might be more effective to ask the speaker to shorten their talk rather than have the audience trying to saw through their chicken marsala, pass the bread, and take notes on effective ways to communicate. Comedians hate performing while servers pass the checks – it’s a distraction to both the performers and audience – and the same goes to event servers dropping off the dessert while the speaker is trying to list ideas for building a better company culture. I open my presentations with a bit where I have attendees close their eyes and imagine themselves in their happy place. When watching the video of the event, I noticed about half of the attendees blatantly ignore this and continue eating. The follow-up punchline died on stage, and, because the opening is vital to the rest of the presentation, I never established a connection with a majority of the audience. Be sure the venue gets the main course on the table at least 15 minutes before the presentation begins, read the room, and introduce the speaker once desserts have been dropped off.

Comedy Creates Connection

Comedy: it’s more than just making people laugh – there are real life lessons that can be learned, and I just learned an important one this past weekend that I felt compelled to share: it doesn’t matter how funny you are, if you don’t make a connection with your audience (your customers), they can’t be invested in you.

I learned this the hard (fun) way this past weekend.

Last Friday and Saturday, I was hosting a comedy show featuring a musical comedian at a comedy club in Akron. As the host, it’s my job to set the tone for the show, so I had spent the week at open mics both working on my material and riffing with audiences. Then Friday night came around… I was instructed by the club owner to promote upcoming shows, so that’s how I kicked off the show.
“Give it up for yourselves for coming out!”
They cheer.
“Now, coming up next week is Jim Florentine from VH1’s That Metal Show! The following week is Dave Landau who has been a special guest on The Bob and Tom Show! Anyone here listed to Bob and Tom?”
Crickets.
“Well you should. They’re hilarious.”
Crickets.
Side note: I don’t even listen to Bob and Tom.
That was me trying to force a connection, but still not listening to the crowd. That’s not how you connect with people.
Now what? Do I stand up here and keep trying crowd work? I’m 0 for 1, that can only mean it’s going to get worse. I know! I’ll perform my set for them.
Before the show I went through all of my jokes and decided on the ones that would tie into the narrative of humans being too comfortable with the status quo to make meaningful change. For example, we call a peanut a nut when it’s actually a legume, Gettysburg will never be a progressive town because they can’t stop reminiscing over the glory days – you know, The Civil War – and the Cleveland Indians calling themselves Indians when their logo is clearly Native American – two distinct races.
It turns out the audience wasn’t there to laugh at thought-provoking humor. The headlining comedian used crude acoustic parodies of well-known songs, including Christmas carols, and the audience ate it up. I couldn’t believe it! What was I doing wrong??
“But I do smart comedy!” I reasoned to myself, “I challenge the status quo!”
If you went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, but a world yo-yo champion was his opening act, you’d be like, “I’m not here to see this guy walk the dog, I want to hear about the glory days.”
So sure, I got some laughs, including one big laugh at my Indians joke (appropriate since the team was in the playoffs at the time), but I never fully connected with the people in the room, and it was a little disheartening to begin the show on a dud.

I approached one of the other, more experienced comedians for pointers on how to more effectively open a show and get the audience riled up.
“Ask if anyone has a Birthday or anniversary and comment on that… and listen for the blender at the bar. Someone always orders a frozen margarita during the opening act. Commenting on that always gets a laugh.”
Noted.
Back on stage again: “Anyone celebrating anything?”
No one. Oh, great. Time to go into my routine – surely the first audience just didn’t get it and the second audience would be much better.
Nope.
Again, I got some laughs, but I was missing that ever-important connection… then the blender went off.
“If anyone needs a root canal, they’re doing them for cheap at the bar.”
Everyone laughed!
“This place has it all: comedy, cocktails, and clean teeth!”
Another laugh.
This was it! Time to ride the momentum train into the rest of my set!
“Did you realize human beings are the only animal to drink the milk of another animal?”
Just as quickly as I got them back, I lost them again, and it deflated me. What was happening?
Lightbulb: I wasn’t listening to them! They came to hear jokes about balls, and here I am telling them about the potential of Gettysburg before the Civil War.
Connection begins when you listen, and I forgot this vital rule of human interaction because I was so focused on getting laughs, rather than working together with the room to create an experience.
The first show the next night got off to a promising start – there was a Birthday and it was at a front table full of women – perfect – they’re probably wasted and I can have some fun at their expense.
“Do any pre-gaming at the Red Fox next door?”
They didn’t, so I asked what they were drinking.
“Vodka cranberries!”
“Ah, the vodka cranberry: the vodka cranberry of cocktails.”
I’m not proud to admit that that got a much bigger laugh than I expected, but hey, a laugh’s a laugh, right?
“Pam’s drinking beer!” Another woman at the table chimed in.
“I like beer,” Pam added. The second she said that, the next few words slipped out of my mouth and into an abyss of silence:
“So does Brett Cavanaugh.”
I didn’t read the room… this was a conservative audience, and that could be construed as a liberal joke.
That wasn’t my intention at all, but it’s how the audience read the joke, and just like that, I lost them. The rest of the set went okay, but I never felt a true connection with the people in the room.

One more show, one more chance.
“Anyone celebrating anything?”
“17th anniversary!”
“17! Give em a round of applause, everyone!” Applause break.
“I can’t make it past two years, but I just got into a relationship. If I’m lucky, in 17 years we’ll be catching a show at this comedy club together too.”
That got a laugh – off to a good start. After some riffing that included the rest of the crowd, it was time to go into my set, which I updated to be a little more off-color.

“When I was a kid, I used to get picked on for my last name. I resisted it because no one wants to be known as the horny kid when they’re ten. It’s a hard reputation to shake off.”
Starting the set with this was the first step to audience connection – it’s what they wanted – but when I felt myself beginning to lose that connection, like when I began a new joke on the absurdities of Tinder, I listened and recreated that connection. “Anyone in here on Tinder?” No one made a sound.
“Next joke.” Everyone laughed, including me. That’s what a real connection feels like.
Although it wasn’t my best set, the key is that I maintained that connection and got some good laughs, keeping the audience invested all the way through my ten minutes of time onstage.
The headliner approached me after I got off stage, “Great set, man. This is going to be a good show.”
If you want to get what you want, you have to look at it from the other person’s perspective and ask yourself, “What is it they want?” first. It took me three shows to remember this, but once I did, it led to me performing the best 10 minutes of comedy in my life, opening up for a national headliner in front of 100 people the next night.

By investing our energy into seeing the world through the eyes of others, we create connection, and once that connection is created, others will be more invested in us.

When The Audience Doesn’t Laugh…

As a comedian, there are very few things that irk me more than when a comedian calls out the audience for not laughing at their joke. It makes me cringe – the audience wasn’t on your side to begin with, what makes you think yelling at them for not laughing is going to get them to want to laugh!?
Even if you hold a gun to my head, sure, I’ll “laugh,” but you better believe it’s not because you’re actually funny.
Saying something like, “That joke was funnier in my head,” is a good way to cut the obvious tension when you don’t get a laugh, but blaming the audience for being unfunny is a quick way to make sure no one laughs at your next joke.
I’ve made it a rule of thumb to never blame an audience when they don’t laugh at a joke because I don’t have control over what they think is funny. All I can do is rework the writing or performance aspect to make it funnier next time.
So what do I do when a joke dies in front of one audience with nary a giggle, but leaves another audience rolling the next day, even though I told it the same way (same wording, gestures, and timing)? It didn’t just make them laugh, I had to pause before continuing so everyone could compose themselves, I used it as a callback 40 minutes later and got another big laugh, and overheard audience members refer to the line and laugh following my performance.
My logic goes like this:
Joke bombs > rewrite joke/adjust timing and tone of joke > try new version
I’ve been telling the joke for a little over a year, and though it didn’t hit the first few times I told it, I followed my formula, fixed the set-up to make the punchline punchier, worked on my vocal tone, and adjusted my timing. For the last six months, the joke gets big laughs 8 out of 10 times, regular laughs 1 out of 10, and dies on the stage 1 out of 10.
If The Backstreet Boys were to put out a new album that everyone hates, they could still sing “I Want It That Way” at a concert and people would looooove it.
This joke is my “I Want It That Way.”
It’s my LeBron James on a team full of “I don’t know hims.”
It just works.
Until it doesn’t.
I wish I could say for sure why there’s a discrepancy.
I want to not blame the audience, but evidence is overwhelmingly pointed toward the fact that it’s a funny joke, so why is there the occasional audience that just blinks at me when I tell it?
I have so many questions.
Was there a difference in audience?
The joke I’m referring to is aimed at a human resources audience, and both days I was speaking to HR professionals, so the type of audience didn’t vary much.
Geography?
Located within 40 miles of one another.
Demographic?
I’m in Maine, so incredibly white.
Did I change anything?
I record myself every time I get on stage. Listening to the recording, I delivered the joke identically both times: word for word, pause for pause, and vocal variety for vocal variety.
What the hell, man?
Though I have no idea why the joke landed for one audience and fell flat for the other, it’s important that I remind myself not to put a gun to the audience’s head on this one.
All I know is that they didn’t laugh, and in the end, that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes people just aren’t on the same wavelength, and that’s not on them, it’s on you to say, “Well, that happened… what can I do with it?”
In this case, write a blog post, laugh about it, keep telling the joke, and that one time out of ten it doesn’t get the laugh, remember that I can’t win ‘em all and move forward. It’s a good reminder that variety makes things interesting.
Of course, there’s the ol’ stand-by of saying, “That joke was funnier in my head.” At least that will break the tension with a chuckle, and a chuckle is better than waving a pistol and yelling, “LAUGH, DAMMIT!”

Rejection is Feedback and Feedback is an Opportunity

“[We are] going to rescind our request to have you speak to [us].”
I stared blankly at the text of the email, mouth agape.
“This has never happened to me,” I thought aloud. “What did I do?”
I kept reading.
“Eight members of our chapter were in attendance and all were offended by your presentation,” the email continued.
“Offended? I was trying to make you laugh!” My fight-or-flight response had kicked in, but before I found myself going off on a tangent, I decided to continue reading to learn more.
“Specifically, you told a ‘dick’ joke.”
Ah… that’s fair. Using my character, Perspective Detective Dick Ransom’s first name strategically for laughs is admittedly juvenile, but it’s something that people remember. The premise of the bit is based around the fact that when we blame the circumstances or other people when we fall short of our goals, so we should “become a Dick” because “we all have a little Dick inside of us.”

Later in the email, he writes “I won’t comment on the rest of your presentation.” This is what hurt me most, not because they didn’t enjoy my presentation, but because once the Dick joke was on the table, they missed out on the message of the rest of the presentation.

That’s on me.

My talks aren’t your standard HR presentation because the current business climate is mired in complacency, so I take some risks – some pay off and some don’t, which I live with. The key, though is to analyze where I am and ask, “Is where I am better than where I was before this?” To get a more accurate answer, it’s vital to consider all feedback from other perspectives. I only have one way of looking at my reality – my own – so I admittedly have a bit of a bias. However, when other people say to me, “We were offended by your presentation,” that’s a sign that, instead of resisting their POV and getting hostile, I have an opportunity to consider another perspective.

I can’t possibly follow through on all feedback given to me, but I can at least listen, appreciate the fact that someone is willing to take a risk to even give me the feedback, and consider what to do next. My aim is to always improve in some way after every presentation I give, and in order to do that, it’s important to listen. This is as true for me as it is for all of you – even if no one approaches you and says, “Hey, here’s my feedback,” if you listen to the world around you by
-evaluating where you are vs. where you want to be
-paying close attention to the nonverbal clues of others
-considering the perspectives of those who do offer explicit feedback
you’ll learn more than you ever would simply looking through your own eyes.

Though another group approached me after the presentation about speaking at one of their upcoming meetings because they enjoyed the presentation and felt motivated (proof that multiple people can see the exact same thing but get something completely different out of it), my aim is to leave everyone feeling better when they see one of my talks. I don’t expect everyone to leap out of their seats and change the world when they leave, but at the very least, I want people to have laughed and felt good. To have not been able to do that for one group leaves me in a state of self-examination where I realize that “I too have a little Detective Dick in me,” now it’s up to me to figure out how I can do better next time, and it’s all thanks to feedback.

“Rejection is just feedback designed to show you how to be better.”

Feedback? More Like Needback

Do you want to get better at what you do?

Of course you do!

We’re all wired to want to be better, but sometimes it’s hard to see beyond our current situations.

“I’m good where I am.”

“I’m fine doing this the way I have been.”

“I’m so friggin good, I can’t get any better.”

Oh, honey…

Listen, we’re all biased. We don’t always mean to be, but it can be difficult to get a different perspective on ourselves when we spend 24/7 looking through our own eyes. To get better, however, that new perspective is necessary… Maybe a few new perspectives.

When I write a script, I never submit it without asking someone else for their opinion on how I can make it better. This is the first time that person is seeing this script I’ve read over and over for the last week, so chances are, they’re going to see it differently.

That’s the key benefit of asking for feedback.

A common misconception of receiving feedback is that you have to do what the other person suggests. If multiple people who aren’t in contact with each other have the same ideas, that’s definitely a sign you should do something, but if one person says, “Cut this line,” I always make sure to take a step back and ask myself:

“Is keeping this line making my script better?”

“Is it true to the character?”

“Does it advance the action or positively contribute to a joke?”

Whether I choose to keep the line or not, I was able to see the script through new eyes, explore new possibilities, and build my self-awareness, which are all necessary steps to create personal growth.

No matter what you’re working on and no matter what the person offering feedback says, he or she has provided you with a new vantage point and, from there, you can access a new level of self-awareness.* You now have new options and can decide whether to get other opinions, use the feedback, or ignore the feedback, but either way, be grateful to the other person for helping you glimpse a fresh perspective and contribute to your growth.

*Although if they call you an asshole and to never talk again, you may want to reconsider who you get your feedback from.