The Wikipedia entry for laugh track has this priceless anecdote:
While witnessing an early post-production editing session, comedian Milton Berle once pointed out a particular joke and said, “as long as we’re here doing this, that joke didn’t get the response we wanted.” After [sound engineer] Douglass inserted a hearty laugh after the failed joke, Berle reportedly commented, “See? I told you it was funny.”
The laugh track has come in for a lot of disparagement and most comedy shows are now taped before live audiences in order to include more genuine laughter. But Milton Berle was actually providing a powerful insight about audiences. Jokes are funnier when people around you are laughing.
People lose a measure of their self-awareness when they are in crowds, and it’s easier to laugh when you’re less aware of yourself. And the same thing that may make people more susceptible to humor can also make them more susceptible to persuasion, understanding, or even incitement.
And that’s why you, as a presenter, should never approach an audience unprepared. Learn everything you can about the individuals in it. It’s the only way you can hope to understand them and to make sure you can give them something they need, which is the biggest single determinant of a successful presentation.
To assess your audience, learn their demographics, discover whether they are likely to be receptive to your message, understand possible distractions, and determine the ringleader or decision makers.
For a rough-and-ready audience assessment, score the audience using five questions. To answer these questions honestly, you will have to do some research. But that research will no doubt contribute to your confidence when it’s time to face your audience.
How many people will attend your presentation?
- More than 20
What priority is this audience likely to give your message?
- Very high
How long is their average attention span?
- 20 minutes or more
- 15 minutes
- 10 minutes
- 7 minutes or less
Do you know which audience members make or influence the decisions?
- Know exactly
- Have a good idea
- Have some idea
- Not sure
What is the potential impact of the benefits promised in your message?
- Very strong
- Better than average
- Will put a dent in resistance
- Will encounter strong opposition
5-10 Easy Audience. Use physical skills – volume, stance, and gestures – to hold their attention and gain credibility.
10-14 Challenging Audience. Start by raising the priority level. Read the audience one person at a time. Finish ideas eye-to-eye with decision makers/influencers.
15-20 Tough Audience. Control your nervousness with eye control. Focus on benefits and supporting evidence.
What is your toughest audience? A small group of children unreceptive to your message and with a ringleader you haven’t identified. What’s the easiest? A large group of interested adults who stand to gain something from your remarks. Large audiences may be scarier, but small audiences tend to be tougher to persuade, in part because people in smaller crowds lose less of their self-awareness than those in larger ones.