Training June 2015

How to command unruly, alcohol-fuelled crowds

  • Turn off music and have someone introduce you
  • Building anticipation and curiosity helps quiet a crowd
  • Hold the microphone at the right distance, project your voice

The Master of Ceremonies (MC) goes to the microphone to get the programme underway but the audience are simply oblivious, caught up in their own riveting conversations.

The situation is much worse at receptions, where alcohol is already flowing and the people at the back are generating a roar that drowns out the speakers.

Apart from bona fide members of imperial families, everyone is fair game in the “let’s ignore the speaker” stakes. Cabinet ministers, eminent speakers and famous personalities all struggle to get the attention of the crowd. When it is our turn, what can we humble beings do about this?

Here are some ideas that may shut down the noisy rabble and provide a proper platform for the speaker to be heard.

Make sure to turn off the background music well before you are ready to start. Surprisingly, this is often forgotten by organisers. Speakers should not try to compete with irritating white noise in the background, so check this will be done before you are due to launch forth.

Preferably always have someone else introduce you. Their job is to quiet the room in preparation for your presentation. This doesn’t always go to plan though, because it can be a lucky draw on who introduces you. Usually, they are not skilled speakers themselves and so they may do a lame job at best.

If you are the MC about to introduce the programme speaker, avoid the charisma by-pass problem of having no presence in the room.

Even a giant of a man boasting a hulking frame will have absolutely no success if he draws up to the microphone and in a tiny, faint voice tries to call the assembled masses to order. An imposing physical presence is no guarantee of cutting through the clatter.

If you worry about speaking behind high podiums and appearing to your audience as a stylish coiffure just peaking above the water line, always arrive early and ask the event staff to provide a small raised dais for you. We always want the audience to see our face easily. Even better, dismiss the podium altogether, because now we can use our body language to maximum effect.

Voice projection is key for cutting through the noise of the crowd. Today’s microphone technology is very good, so you don’t need to have a stentorian voice.

Placing the microphone too close to your mouth creates dissonance, making it harder for the audience to hear you. Mysteriously, some speakers have the opposite problem and hold the microphone so low that there is almost no sound being heard.

These errors are easily avoided if you just hold the microphone about a hand’s spread in front of your mouth and speak across the top of the microphone mesh.

When you face a challenging, noisy crowd, make sure to hit the first few words very hard. To get things going, start with a strong greeting—“Ladies and gentleman”—with power invested in the first word.

Remember to draw that first word out slightly for effect. Now include a small pause before a strong finish to the phrase. This will generally shut down the room and gather everyone’s focus on the speaker.

If it doesn’t produce that “hear a pin drop” silence, then speak again with strong voicing of the next phrase, “May I have your attention please”.

I have seen speakers use assorted cutlery to bang on a glass to create a chime that signals it is time for everyone to be silent and listen. It works. However, one word of warning: don’t speak while pounding. Let the chime effect work and, when the peer pressure builds to a point where you have achieved silence, put the glass down, pause and then start.

Why pause? This builds anticipation and curiosity, both of which work in our favour when trying to get attention to what we are saying.

Similarly, you can also use powerful music to drown out the crowd’s babble and make them listen to what is coming next. Just a short piece will do, as it signals action is about to commence and people will switch their gaze to you at the front of the room. After the music ends, again use a slight pause and then start.

We can’t be effective communicators if people are not listening, so our first task is to quiet the room. Using these techniques will produce the right break in the chaos for your message to be heard.