How are you at Connecting with an Audience?

A good showman understands the necessity of being able to immediately convince an audience that they have made a good decision in choosing to experience his performance.

He knows that the following concepts are critical to making this happen.

  1. The Power of the First Impression
  2. The Truth of the Self-fulfilling Prophecy
  3. The 15 Second Rule
  4. The Means by which Audiences Make Quick Judgments

I. The Power of the First Impression

The fact that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression is well known.  The vital nature of this fact is not always understood.  The fundamental issue is that people typically abide by their first impression.  Especially in context of a show.

In normal life there may be time to create a second, or further impression, that leads people to leave a first impression behind.  This is not something that normally occurs, but it can occur.

For a person who is on stage, there is rarely and almost never time, nor the means, for undoing a first impression.  The first impression is likely to also be the final impression.

This knowledge leads a good showman to put as much, or more, thought into how he makes a first impression, than he does into any other aspect of his show.  He is careful to consider when and how the audience will first see him.  He is aware of the fact that the first judgment they make about him happens at their first glance, and at his first appearance.  He does not view himself as only “on stage” when he begins performing his first routine.   He understands that he is “on stage” the moment he is in view.  He is determined that his first impression will be a great impression.

This is a lesson I learned from the wonderful Japanese Magician, Fukai.   I was at a convention with him where several of his students were competing.  The competitors stood in a line along a wall waiting for their turns in front of the judges.  While waiting, most of the competitors adopted a casual and careless attitude.  They slouched.  They stared off into space.  They messed around with their props.  In their minds, they were not performing.  They were only waiting.

Later I heard Fukai chide his students about this.  He said, “When people see you, they are judging you. They cannot help but form opinions about you any time they notice you.  If you want to be great, even if you are only standing by a wall, you must behave like a professional!”

A good showman knows when and how the audience will first see him and takes every aspect of the matter into account.  He considers how his first step will be viewed.  He considers how he will walk and then stand when being introduced.

He especially pays attention to his first words.  He does not leave his opening remarks to the inspiration of the moment.  Instead he carefully crafts what he will say to be sure the first thing that comes out of his mouth is the most appealing and interesting thing he can possibly voice.

This is a place where many performers immediately hurt themselves.  I recently was at a concert where I experienced a singer do just that.  When she walked on stage, she acted unsure of what she planned to do.  After adjusting her notes, and figuring out where she wanted the microphone to be, she sat down at the keyboard and said to the audience, “How are you doing?”  It was an obvious and mundane remark.      Then she proceeded to ramble about how her day had been, and how she was glad to finally be able to preform her music.  The problem was, she was not preforming.  Instead she was engaging in meaningless chatter.

When she finally did start singing, she proved to be talented.  I think the audience did enjoy the sound of her voice.  However, they had already been convinced that she was just an amateur who was there to hopefully fill the time in a pleasant way.

I later learned that this singer, for many years, has had the dream of being a star.  She may have the vocal talent to be a star, but it will never happen unless she learns that the quality of her voice does not compensate for the incompetence she demonstrates at the beginning of her relationship with an audience.

A good showman never neglects, nor fails to prepare, for making a powerful first impression.  He understands that it is not just a matter of there being no second chance to make a first impression, it is the matter of the first impression being of critical importance.

II.  The Self-fulfilling Prophecy

This is a fascinating aspect of human psychology that especially applies to a person who works in front of groups of people.  It has to do with the fact that, in light of a first impression, people make judgments and then assume the judgments are correct.

This is a matter that also involves ego.  People want their judgments to be correct.  They like to believe they are right.  Therefore, once they draw a conclusion, they quickly notice anything that corroborates the conclusion and tend to ignore those things that contradict the conclusion.

In actuality, the concept works like this:  If a person looks at a performer and, upon first impression, concludes, “This guy is going to be good,” that person will then be attentive to anything that verifies the conclusion.  For the rest of the show, any time something happens that is pleasing, the person will say, “Yes, that’s what I thought.  This guy is good!”  So the audience member is looking for, and believing in, the performer’s success because the first thing he thought is “this will be a success.”

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that the person works to make his own prediction come true.  He wants it to be true.  He wants to be able to pat himself on the back at the end of the show and say, “I knew it all along, this guy was great!”

This is something that any entertainer wants.  What a wonderful thing to have members of the audience desiring and expecting his success!

If the performer does not make a good first impression, the self-fulfilling prophecy works in the opposite direction.  If the first thing members of the audience think is, “This will not be good,” they will spend the rest of the show looking for verification of that.  Any time the performer makes a mistake, or does something that is weak, they will focus on it with the attitude of “That’s what I expected.  I knew it would be like this.” Because the performer did not start well, and the audience made an initial judgment about him, for the rest of the show he must fight an uphill battle to win them over.

It is a simple equation relating to performance:

Weak or poor first impression = 

An audience that focuses on every mistake and misstep a performer might make.

Good and appealing first impression = An audience that overlooks mistakes and instead focuses on every good and appealing thing a performer does.

This means, if a performer wants an audience to be expecting and hoping for his success, he must make sure that he starts the show in a wonderful manner.

III.  The 15 Second Rule

This really is not a rule.  It is an observation, made by a number of wise people in show business, that should be treated like a rule.  The observation is that audience members typically form their first opinion of a performer, and what they can expect out of him, within fifteen seconds of his coming into view.  First impressions happen quickly!  If it takes more than fifteen seconds to create a good impression, the audience likely already has come to possess a bad impression.

In practical terms this means performers must figure out how to immediately project a positive image.  It should be a paramount concern to instantly capture interest.  It is a good idea to literally put a stop watch to the first moments of your show to see how long it is before you do something that is truly worthwhile from the spectator’s point of view.

This is why the typical superstar entertainer comes on stage with fog, lighting effects, and fireworks surrounding him.  He is telling all who have come to see him, “This is a fantastic show.  You know it the moment you see me”!  The performer, if a singer, will then immediately launch into one of his well known songs that gets a cheer out of the audience when they hear the first notes.  Within 15 seconds, he has them “eating out of the palm of his hand”.

If a person is a magician, the first trick he does must happen right away, or the first thing he says must be quickly and distinctly entertaining.  There is not time for careless comments.  There are only fifteen seconds to make the audience glad you are there.

If a person is a clown, the moment he is in view he must walk in a funny way, or make a funny expression, or deliver a funny remark.  He must work as if there are only 15 seconds to deliver the message that he can, and will, entertain with humor.  Whatever kind of entertainer or communicator a person might be, the window of time in which an audience can be captivated must be viewed as only being open for one fourth of a minute.

Even if a person does not believe in this 15 second rule, and thinks there are more seconds to work with, it is good discipline, and it really can’t hurt, to attempt to perform by the 15 second rule anyway.  Why not work at instantly making the audience delighted with your presence?

IV.  The Means By Which Audiences Make Quick Judgements 

Once a person accepts the necessity of making a powerful first impression, and understands the matter of self-fulfilling prophecy, and embraces the 15 second rule, what can be done to take advantage of these concepts?

 The first thing to consider is the ears of the audience.  Music is a great tool for making a positive impression.  If the moment the announcer says your name, people hear the exciting and appealing notes of a song, they are likely to get a good feeling.  This is why many well-known entertainer have a theme song.  This is why talk shows have upbeat music playing when hosts and guests are introduced.  This is why TV shows and movies almost always have a musical soundtrack that starts immediately.  A wise performer gives much attention to the music that plays before and when he walks onto the stage.  A performer sho does not combine music with his introduction has increased his difficulty in making a good first impression.  To state the matter simply:  give yourself a theme song, or a least a few notes of “walk on” music.  If the “best in the entertainment business” use this technique, why wouldn’t you?

The next thing to consider is the eyes of the audience.  By the way of the ears it is possible to impress an audience even before they see you.  Apart from that, the thing that comes into their mind most quickly is what they view when you first step onto the stage.  With that in mind, do not ignore the truism that people do judge by appearances.  Have you ever taken time to ponder the fact that high profile entertainers rarely look like the “person next door”? As a general truth, if you were to take a high profile entertainer and remove him from the stage to put him on the street to stand among normal people, people around him would still realize he is somebody special, or at least wonder, “Who is this person”. It would be because of what they see when they notice him.

I know a successful magician who was on vacation in Florida. While he was looking around in a store, someone came up to him and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know you must be somebody. May I have your autograph?” The magician laughs when he tells about it. The autograph seeker did not have a clue as to his identity, but did recognize that he must be someone of more than ordinary reputation. The interesting thing in this is that the autograph seeker was correct. The magician is a celebrity in the region where he performs.

The question is: How is it that just viewing these entertainers leads people to believe they are individuals of significance? The answer is: their style, their dress, and there carriage.

People who do well in the entertainment business almost always have confident movements and hair and/ or apparel that are interesting. Whether grungy or beautiful, careless or glam, cutting edge fashion or a throwback to another generation, there is something about them that calls for attention. They do not look normal and this is deliberate on their part. They do not want to look normal. Normal tends to be boring. The unusual is what is interesting.

So when a person is making a first impression from the stage, he should realize that his appearance is a tremendous means of generating interest, curiosity, excitement, and more. He will be wise to cultivate a “look” that makes people want to know more about him.

A performer who walks onto the stage in jeans, tennis shoes, and a polo shirt, just like what is worn by other audience members, faces an extra challenge in convincing people that he merits their attention.

A performer who puts thought and effort into dressing, walking, and styling himself in a manner that is appealing, unusual, and credible, gives himself a strong advantage. My opinion is that costuming is an often neglected and underused tool by many who want to be successful entertainers. They fail to understand that, as the saying goes, “looking the part is at least half the battle”.

Another means by which the audience makes a quick judgement is the setting of the stage. Fancy props and unusual stage furnishings produce a degree of excitement as people anticipate what might be done with them. A classy backdrop, along with a clean and well- organized stage, can suggest that one is an accomplished performer who deserves an audience. The goal in how a stage is arranged should be that of making people look forward to what will happen when the performer steps upon it.

Beyond music that is heard, costuming/styling that is seen, and creating a stage situation that is appealing; consider these things…

A. Walk with confidence. Step into view with your body open to the audience.
Let the audience get a good look at you, then move toward them. If your act is about comedy, add a humorous expression or odd gait to your movement. If you are a clown, learn how to do a good pratfall, then use it. Treat the manner in which you walk as part of the entertainment.

B. If you are using a microphone that is on a stand, rather than going directly to it, stop next to it. When you put yourself in line with the microphone, applause begins to die down because people want to hear what you might say. If you first step to the side of the microphone and do a slight bow of greeting, the welcoming applause will last longer. By way of the extended applause, the message is communicated, especially to those who know nothing about you, that you must be someone special.

C. Consider having your opening remark be a clever question. Good questions generate interest. Rather than the inane  “How are you all doing?” that so many inexperienced performers tend to say when starting their shows, try saying something such as, “By a show of hands, how many of you have seen me before, or are seeing me for the very first

time?” (It is a standard joke, but still effective as an opening remark). If doing a magic trick, your first words might be, “Does anyone here know how to make a full bottle of ketchup disappear?” (Then go right into the trick).
For the purpose of immediately drawing an audience into a relationship with an entertainer (or communicator), a query is normally much stronger than a statement.

D. Develop a strong routine that does not rely on words at all. Doing something that is flashy and fun, while great music plays in the background, may be the best way of all to make a powerful first impression as a stage performer.

E. Do not let technical glitches overshadow your efforts to make a good first impression. Check the level of your microphone and make sure there is proper lighting before the program begins. If you have to do this after you have arrived on the stage, it will likely detract from the positive image you need to create.

G. Have a written introduction to give to the announcer. Work hard in preparing it so it is brief, properly informative, and provocative. It should make the audience want to experience what you are about to do for them.

Below are two examples of how this might be done. They are not introductions for actual individuals, but they would work well if they were to be used. These introductions would be written out and the emcee would be instructed to read them as written.

Example #1. (For a magician)

What do you get when you combine award winning talent with a magical attitude and a love for having fun? What do you get when this combination of interesting and entertaining things comes from Columbus, Georgia? We are about to find out!

Please welcome to the stage….

Example #2. (For a clown)

His name is Bananas, his aim is laugher, his claim is that he would make a good president…because he would fit right in with all the other clowns that have already been elected to office.

Please welcome to the stage…

Give yourself an assignment.

Think about your most recent show and seriously analyze how it started. Hopefully it went well, but is there a way to do it better? Consider the next show you will do and figure out some ways to “amp up” how it will begin. If you are serious about improving your shows, the best place to start is at the beginning!


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