Using Humor in a Difficult Situation

As speakers, one of the challenges of speaking is having to speak to a sparse crowd. Just the visual aspects of seeing perhaps hundreds of empty seats and the audience sprinkled throughout the auditorium is demoralizing to both the speaker and the listeners. What can you do to turn this around to your advantage?

As a member of such an audience recently, I was impressed with how the speaker handled the small audience by using humor. Here are some of his one-liners that got us laughing and released the tension caused by the small crowd.

Within the first 30 seconds, he said, “Did all of you come on the same elevator?”  He referred to us as a “cabaret crowd.” He finished his introduction of himself by saying, “This is great for me. I hate crowds.”

Once the crowd realized the empty seats did not faze him, they began to applaud. When this occurred, his response was, “Thank you. Those of you clapping, could you run around to room to give the effect of more people?”

Our speaker used humor to diffuse an awkward beginning to his speech. I’m sure he had these lines prepared just in case, and he was able to fit them in perfectly to bring the audience to him.

As speakers, one of the ways we can prepare for what may be the unexpected is to have some “ad libs” prepared whether it is for a sparse crowd, a squeaky microphone, or dessert being served as you start to speak.

The success of a speaker may depend not on great content (although that is always important), but on his or her ability to adapt to a difficult situation.

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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