Adapting on the Spot

            Once I was listening to an outstanding speaker when an audience member, succumbing to a long day of meetings, went to sleep so soundly that his head suddenly fell forward. He awoke with such a jerk that he pulled a muscle in his neck and had to be taken out of the room on a stretcher.

            During that time, the speaker calmly said to the audience, “We have a medical emergency. Let’s just wait until this is taken care of.”  She waited at the lectern until it was clear that the person was receiving help, then continued her speech. She became even more effective after this unexpected happening during her presentation because she knew how to adapt on the spot.

            One of the concerns of the effective speaker during preparation is to adapt to the audience he or she is addressing. But to really make a connection with a specific audience, the quality speaker must also adapt during the presentation. This requires quick thinking and the willingness to go with your intuitive impulse. Here are some tips on how to make those kinds of on-the-spot decisions.

            You are told ten minutes before your presentation that you will have to shorten your speech from 30 minutes to 20 minutes. The way to handle this emergency is not to rush through material hoping to get it all in. Instead, simply eliminate one of your points and support for you point. No one knows what you intended to include except you and thus they will just assume that that is all you planned to say.

            Sometimes an audience may be much smaller than the planner anticipated. You have many empty seats throughout the room, and empty seats make relating to an audience difficult. When you start your presentation, have everyone stand for a specific reason, such as a stretch break or to meet someone they don’t know. Then while everyone is still standing, suggest moving forward to fill an empty seat. This provides a full audience up front. Since the back rows are empty, how few people there are is less noticeable.

            You have an audience that seems lethargic or indifferent because of the length of the meeting or the time of day. What do you do to wake them up?  You see people nodding off or slouching in their seats. Make an abrupt change. Move to the back of the room as you speak, or include a piece of information that allows you to punch out words loudly. Speed up your rate of speech or make quicker gestures. If you are providing lots of data, break that up with a story related to the information you are providing.

            Finally, as you get into your speech, you realize that you have misjudged the knowledge level of your audience and that they don’t understand your material. Simply start providing more definitions and explanations. When possible, give a concrete example of the principle presented when you can tell by facial expressions that you are taking them into new territory. You might even stop and ask, “What questions do you have about what we’ve covered so far?” This gives the audience a chance to facilitate understanding by asking a pertinent question as well as giving you valuable feedback on what they do understand.

            A key part of adapting on the spot is to avoid showing that things are not going as you anticipated. Make it seem as though everything you do is carefully planned and that you are in charge. For example, don’t say, “I did not expect to have so many empty seats. Let’s all move to the front of the room.”  And refrain from saying, “I can tell this material is a little hard for you to follow, so I’ll back up and give you more definitions.” 

            When you adeptly adapt, your listeners are aware that you are audience-centered at all times and that you prepared specifically for them.


Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations whose people want to speak and listen more effectively to increase professional and personal success. He can be reached at 800.727.6520, or visit for free articles and resources to improve your communication skills.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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