Engaging a Tough Audience

preach with people present with people speak with people Jan 09, 2023




There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.

Charles Dickens

The year was 1998 and it was the first time I was going to receive compensation for my speaking. This was a very big deal to me. Up until that point in my career, every speaking engagement was done for free. That’s how most speakers begin their speaking career. They get in front of as many audiences as possible, even if it means they speak for free.

I was nervous. There was a lot on the line. And it didn’t make it any easier that my audience was a room of court appointed teenagers. Yes, you read that correctly. My audience were court appointed teenagers forced to be there by a judge. This was definitely going to be a learning experience. 

If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.

George Bernard Shaw

My objective was clear, teach these students the necessary life skills to help them not make the same mistakes that got them to this point. I made all the rookie mistakes of speaking to a brand new audience. I fumbled over my opening words. I passed out my handout too soon and it became a giant distraction. I jumped right into my content without getting to know my audience.

As I stood before this group, sweat was rolling off my back. The first session was not going as planned and to be honest, I just wanted out. I wanted the engagement to be done and I wanted to be packing up and leaving. Luckily for me, I had to speak a couple of times that evening. In between sessions, I took a walk and did some thinking and it hit me like a load of bricks.

I wasn’t using one of the most important gifts every speaker has in their tool box: the gift of laughter.

The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.

Mark Twain

When I returned for the next session, I was ready. Instead of jumping right into the content or talking more about me, I relied on the gift of laughter. I coupled that gift with another amazing tool for every speaker: story.

In his book, Storybrand, Donald Miller says “the human brain longs for story because our minds are drawn to clarity and away from confusion. Story is a sense-making device”.

Everything began to change in the room as I told my story. The students in the room went from being totally disengaged to leaning in to find out what happened next. That’s because stories are incredibly powerful.

Once I started telling the story, I finally had them. Sweat stopped rolling down my back. I didn’t want to leave the room and neither did they. The story I chose was filled with extremely true and embarrassing moments that happened to me. It provided something that was missing in my first session: laughter.

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.

Victor Borge




Public speakers have an incredibly hard job. The event planner who hired the speaker has expectations. (This is why crystal clear communication about those expectations are so important on the front end of all the planning for talk.) The audience has high expectations and so does the speaker. This is a lot of tension to manage.

Our audiences are coming from different backgrounds. What unites us together is that we have all faced pain, hurt, damage, despair and brokenness. However, that pain has caused protective walls in the souls of your audience members. The speaker's intentions to help their audience can be blocked unless these walls first come down.

I don't trust anyone who doesn't laugh.

Maya Angelou

Imagine you have prepared your material and you’re ready to share it with your audience. You look out into the eyes of the people gathered and you realize all those backgrounds and walls are staring back at you. Some people will be smiling or  ready to take notes. But others will have their arms crossed. Some people will be looking at their phones. Some will be talking to the person next to them. How are you going to break through all of that and bring your audience together? 

Laughter is key to building trust with a new audience especially if the audience doesn’t know you very well. Some speakers are very well known. For example, Simon Sinek has millions of videos online and  millions of books sold. Most audiences are going to know him, about him and what he’s going to present. However, for most of us who are not known speakers, one of the very best ways to build trust with our audience is through laughter. 

Daniel Goleman wrote in Primal Leadership “Indeed, laughter may be the shortest distance between two brains, an unstoppable infectious spread that builds an instant social bond.” Laughter is so important because it can be used to begin breaking down the walls of pain in your audience's souls.

I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it's the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It's probably the most important thing in a person.

Audrey Hepburn

Now, I’m not saying that laughter is the only remedy for the walls of hurt and pain. Obviously, counseling and deep internal work are needed. But, in the context of a speaker doing everything they can to get through, connect with and speak into their audience, laughter will help you in a tremendous way. 

Laughter breaks down walls and builds trust with your audience so that you can speak more clearly and effectively. Laughter builds a pathway to life change. The pathway looks like this: 

Laughter > Listening > Learning > Life Change

When trust is built, laughter breaks down walls and makes a pathway for listening. While the audience is listening, listening paves the way for learning. Finally, learning makes a pathway for life change. And that’s exactly why we’re speaking in the first place. We want to be the catalyst for change in the lives of our audience.




Here are a few dos and don’ts for building trust with laughter in your next speaking engagement:

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Concentrate on being authentic and not trying to be someone else. 
  2. Do some research on your audience so you know how to prepare. 
  3. Don’t try to force the laughter. Just tell the story or joke like you would if you were sitting around a campfire with friends. 
  4. Don’t start your story with “this will be so funny”. If you say that phrase, you better be funny. 
  5. Do hook your audience with something that everyone can relate to. Trust will be built if they see that your life experiences some of the same things. 
  6. Do laugh with them. When they see you laugh, it continues to build trust. 

Back in 1998, when I spoke to that group of court appointed teenagers, I used real and transparent stories from my life to even the playing field. I used stories that didn’t make me out as the hero. The stories were from moments that they could relate to because I told them about moments that happened to me as a teeanger. And, the moments were real. We could all laugh at what I went through because they could relate. Laughter was key to those stories. As you do the research about your audience, you can begin building story and laughter ideas that will help you even the playing field and connect in an amazing way with your audience. 

Not every speaker or leader is a stand up comedian and you don’t have to be to help people laugh. But, if you put a high value on laughter because you know it will help build trust, you can use it very strategically to build a strong foundation with your audience. When I finished the second session at my speaking engagement in 1998, the difference between the first and second was astronomical. Once I employed laughter and built some trust, they went with me on a journey. I didn’t need to use laughter all the time, but once that foundation was built, I had their trust and I believe lives were changed that weekend.

Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.

G.K. Chesterton


By Jason Raitz - Founder of Speak with People