I was recently a guest speaker for a teachers' conference. Before my presentation, they had a prize giveaway and some announcements. As the emcee was announcing the winners, many delegates were talking, making it difficult for others to pay attention. When he finished and I went up to speak, he whispered to me... good luck.
What do you do when a crowd is not ready to settle down and listen? You have to be prepared to change your approach. Not that I am a resounding expert, but I learn as I go. In this case, I walked out into the audience and engaged in playful banter to break the ice. I walked to the back of the audience of about 500 people and stood by the tables that were talking. Having me hovering over them, eventually they stopped talking.
Were they being rude? No, they were just being teachers. They were excited to attend and interact with their colleagues. In a classroom, students don't just sit up and listen when a teacher starts to talk. Teachers have to work to get the students' interest; they try different, interactive approaches to help people learn at their own pace. This is how they teach and, I surmise, this is how they prefer to learn.
I had a good time as a guest speaker for the teachers' conference after I altered my approach slightly. Every audience is different and this one at that time, (8 Am in the morning after a long night of fun the night before) needed to interact and engage in order to be ready to absorb any kind of content. At one point, I asked the audience members to shush each other and they calmed down.
Pointers to Command an Audience
Know the audience. If they love interaction, give it to them. If they need heavy content to get their brains going, give it to them.
Consider timing. Early morning typically requires high energy, humor, interaction and caffeine. A conference closing speaker may need to present a lighter, inspiring message to leave everyone on a high note.
Get their attention. There is no point in giving a speech if no one is listening. Whether it is an emcee, convention chair or the guest motivational speaker, disruptive audience members affect the ability of the audience at large to engage. You have to command the audiences' attention or else don't bother. Do something unexpected, like cry (just kidding). I once saw a conference chairman stand silently on stage with a bewildered look on his face until everyone grew attentive. Doing the unexpected gets people to listen, if only out of sheer curiousity.
You could crack an egg on the stage, pop a balloon, jump up and down, or say something provocative and delegates will look your way. Okay, you don't have to do anything that dramatic. Just standing silently on stage, eventually audiences will notice. Once you have their attention, keep it by interacting with them in a meaningful way.
If you have really disruptive audience members call them on it or ask them to leave.
Find our why a motivational speaker Bombs.