At the start of my career, I worked as a motivational keynote speaker for high school students. I remember walking into classrooms lined with students wishing they could be anywhere else but there.
As I entered the room I would see students with their upper bodies draped lethargically over their desks as though their spines had been surgically removed.
These were very difficult motivational speeches to give because the audience was reluctant to pay attention. Those who did listen usually chose to heckle the motivational keynote speaker at every opportunity.
After awhile of struggling to adapt, I realized I would need to develop a very thick skin to make it work.
To try to engage this reluctant crowd, I knew I had to understand the challenges they go through. For them to hear me, I had to speak their language.
Even more importantly, I had to somehow be invited into their world. To do this I would create allies with prominent or popular members within the audience - not an easy thing to do with high school students.
Usually the way this would unfold is that I would attempt to engage outspoken students (possibly hecklers) throughout the motivational speech.
Playful banter would result as I tried to ask them questions tying the speech content to their lives. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it backfired as I searched for common ground.
With tough audiences, participation was successful only when just enough tension followed comedic release forging laughter and creating a bond.
15 years and many lessons later, I know these high school students taught me a lot about what it takes to engage a reluctant crowd.
As a motivational keynote speaker, when I struggle with reluctant audiences, I think the key is to relate the content to the audience through audience participation and customizing the speech content to their world.