How to warm up a cold audience before you speak

Updated to Business on December 19, 2022.

There’s nothing worse than stepping on stage and looking out to 200 blank stares. Your content might be pure gold, but the audience isn’t warmed up.

Just like firing up your car mid-winter and trying to drive right away – the gas is good, the engine just isn’t ready to drink.

Here’s some quick tips on how to warm up a cold audience:

  • arrive early – sure you’re only being paid for an hour, but come on – people want to meet you, so arrive early. I usually fly in the night before, check-in with the client and then plan to be at the event check-in early the next morning.
  • hang out – there might be a VIP table, but I rarely go there. My job is to work with the delegates, so that’s where I hang out. For meals, I might visit 2 tables – always asking lots of questions and turn the conversation on them.
  • start slow – in their first 5 minutes I’ve seen speakers walk into the audience, tell off-colour jokes, make fun of the emcee, complain about their hotel room and a host of other wasted segues. Always jump right into your content (I almost always start with a story), but keep the pace slow. You need people to get used to your style, how you pronounce certain words, mannerisms and even your topic.
  • get them laughing – when in doubt get them laughing. I have stories that guarantee a laugh I also know if I admit to doing something goofy that usually gets a chuckle.
  • see the best – you will always have the “doubting Dennis” in the room, arms crossed, blank stare, challenging your enthusiasm. Don’t go there. I’ve found if you see the best in others you’re usually right. If I see someone tuned out, I don’t hang out there – I keep scanning the room until I can pause at someone enthusiastic about what I’m sharing.

The old line “When the student is ready the teacher appears” is profoundly accurate. It’s also true that “When the teacher is ready the student is ready.”

Ready to speak, first warm up your audience.