Stop trying to please the audience

by Doug Stevenson 2000

Story Theater tip of the month: Stop trying to please your audience!

The time to think about pleasing your audience is not when you are in front of them. By then it’s too late. The time to focus on pleasing your audience is at home, in preparation. That is where you can customize your material, consider their specific needs and add or subtract stories, quotes and content points. My philosophy is this; rehearse at home, not on stage. As an actor I am used to rehearsing prior to opening night. Actors would never consider stepping in front of an audience unprepared. Although speaking is uniquely different, one thing is the same. The best in the business are the best because they spend more time preparing what they are going to do and say and less time winging it. The concept of winging it brings to mind an unrehearsed and harried speaker stepping in front of an audience trusting that an angel will somehow show up and give them wings with which to fly. It doesn’t happen. When you watch a top professional speaker you will hear quotes that are memorized, stories that are well thought out and rehearsed and a logical flow of content that builds to an exciting climax. There is no luck involved.

I began by stating that the time to think about pleasing your audience is not when you are in front of them. Does that mean that you don’t try to please them when you’re there? Yes and no. Consider the theater as an example. When you go to see a play, the actors have a job to do. That job is to hit their marks, deliver their lines and achieve the highest level of performance possible each and every night. To be quite honest, the goal is to sustain a high level of consistency from night to night regardless of the audience. Since the play is the same every night and the lines and blocking don’t change, the only variable is in the intensity of the ensemble performance, which is the sum total of many individual performances. Every actor who has ever stepped foot on a stage will tell you that one night the actors are brilliant and the audience is a dud while the next night the actors can give an average performance and the audience laughs at everything.

My point is that the actors have a job to do that is unrelated

to the reaction of the audience. I think our job as speakers is very much the same. Our first responsibility is to the consistently brilliant delivery of our material regardless of the immediate feedback we receive from our audiences. When we alter our performance too much to try and please them, we often lose our center and diminish our power. I call it co-dependent speaking.

This point is especially important in relation to storytelling. Good stories are written, crafted and rehearsed for maximum emotional and intellectual impact. They should be memorized and delivered with an eye towards consistent replicability each time. Like a song that is always sung with the same lyrics and melody, a good story should be a set piece. It should be a perfect marriage of writing and performance, a mini-play. Why mess with something that works? Why change it for every performance? For most speakers the answer is simple. Their stories have been loosely developed helter-skelter over time without much thought. They have never been crafted.

My challenge to you is to please your audience by spending more time in preparation. When you’re in front of them, don’t worry about them. Just perform what you’ve prepared. Trust me, your audiences will show their appreciation.

Since your best marketing is your presentation, spend more time working on your stories. Think about them. Close your eyes and visualize them. Consider movement and gesture, vocal inflection and emotion. Give them their due.

One thing that I’ve learned over the last 30 years of performance is that audiences are fickle. I can’t count on them. If I depend on them to give me predictable reactions such as laughter or tears, I will often be disappointed. So what can I count on? I can count on me. I can determine my own fate by preparing for them at home. Now when I perform, I am seeking to achieve my own standard, not theirs. I have set a high bar for myself. When I achieve it, I am satisfied, regardless of the audience reaction. I can get on the plane and head to the next gig knowing that I nailed my timing, my lines and my emotional intensity. And you know what? Now that I am not trying to please them, they are consistently pleased. Life is funny ain’t it?

Writing tip of the month

When you write the first-draft of your story, just recall what happened. Don’t try to embellish or go for humor. Get the basic elements of the story on paper including any details that easily come to mind. It may help to close your eyes occasionally and visualize the events and people. This will help you to remember details. This process will force you to put things in the proper order. It will take time to do this, so schedule three hours or more in your day planner to do this work.

Once you’ve completed the first draft ask yourself this question. What is the point of this story, the lesson learned? There may be more than one. Don’t stop with the first one that comes to mind. Investigate all of the points that it could make. Then choose the most powerful point that also has the greatest universal appeal. Will that point be equally powerful for women and men, executives and secretaries, Christians and Jews, blacks and whites, Europeans and Americans?

Once you’ve got your point, go back through the story and re-construct it to lead in a logical fashion to the point you have chosen. That’s the second draft.

The third draft is where you start to have fun with it. Look for places that can be funny. Find the humor, or manufacture it by exaggeration. Embellish the details. Is it visual? Are you making it easy for your audience to be there with you in the moment. What emotions did you experience? Are you using the best words to evoke the feeling that you want?

The writing process is where it all starts. Without it, you are ad-libbing your way to mediocrity. Write now and see the results later.


Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at or 800.573.6196