HUGH CULVER

How to warm up a cold audience before you speak

Updated to Business on December 19, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

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.