Big, Empty and Quiet: 7 Ways to Foster Energy in an Otherwise Dead Room

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Sometimes by solving one problem you create another.

This came to mind recently when I performed on a cruise line featuring something called “freestyle cruising”. Long gone are the bad old days when passengers had two choices: dinner followed by a show or a show followed by dinner. Today, passengers make reservations to eat whenever they like – and at an increasing variety of onboard restaurants. In addition to dinner reservations, passengers have a long list of other by-appointment activities to participate in such as rock climbing or ice skating. This means more options for passengers and more onboard revenue for the cruise line. But here’s the rub: as onboard options proliferate, some passengers now complain about a lack of opportunity to take in each night’s headline entertainment.

One cruise line’s solution was to adopt what they call their “3/35” format: instead of the industry standard of two nightly, 45-50 minute performances, passengers now have three seatings to choose from, with each show lasting only 35 minutes.

Having protected itself from passenger complaints about lack of opportunity to get good seats at the shows, the cruise line now receives a new complaint: the extraordinarily low-key atmosphere that prevails these sparsely-attended, third-seating performances. This problem would be less acute in a small venue, but with showrooms at sea increasingly the size of small countries, one of the three shows invariably feels more like a dress rehearsal: an ideal atmosphere for teenagers in the audience to make out in semi-privacy but hardly the high energy environment one strives for in a live show. The message sent is less “It’s showtime!” than “Here’s your third-seating performance now leave us alone, you ding bats.”

Having come the long way around the barn, here are eight simple practices to avoid the “dead room” effect.

1: Provide incentives for people to sit near the stage. In the example above, the cruise line could place on each front-row seat a free bingo card or raffle ticket or one of the  trinkets (coffee mugs, key chains) for which passengers have shown themselves willing to knock over old ladies and infants.

2: Close off the balcony. But what if someone insists on watching from the balcony? Then make something up. Tell them the balcony seats have just been shampooed. That it’s just been fumigated and poisonous for a while. Or better yet, be straightforward and tell them the truth: that it’s your policy to close the balcony so long as there are seats available below.

3: Arrange for ushers to politely encourage people to sit near the front and you’ll find that others will soon follow suit without any prompting. Remember that people are far more inclined to sit near the front if they aren’t the first to do so.

4: Tape-off the back rows or, better yet, splurge for some seat covers  (“Reserved”!) to funnel people toward the sweet spot: front and center.

5: Play some pre-show music already! It can be high-energy like The Beatles’ cover of “Twist and Shout!” or classic ballads like Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Bewitched”. The main that is that it isn’t intrusive and adds to the atmosphere and anticipation. Burning 45-minutes of music onto a disc and playing it on a loop costs pennies and goes a long way to creating the atmosphere you want. What are you waiting for?

6: Three words: balloons, beach balls. I’ve performed for audiences which got so much pre-show enjoyment from watching someone send corkscrew-shaped balloons rocketing toward the ceiling or by batting around a beach ball that I got the impression they would have been content to do so the rest of the evening. If anything, the commencement of the show proper can actually be a letdown (not advised if where beverages are available).

7: For the love of God, have the courtesy to give an on-stage introduction. Asking an entertainer “Would you like an on-stage introduction?” is another way of saying “Are you going to insist I put on some pants?” Don’t fax it in, do your job. If you know a great, short joke that you can tell forwards and backwards, by all means, tell it. If you can engage the audience in anyway, by all means do so. Anything you can do to remind the audience that they are part of the show rather than idle observers is a step in the right direction.

These are just some of the ways to create some energy in an otherwise dead room. If you have thoughts on the subject, leave a comment below.

Return to or see how a head injury forced me to reinvent myself.

How To Ruin Your Event


Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 11.21.34 AMThere’s lots of ways to ruin an event. Let’s talk about ruining the entertainment portion, especially if you have gone with comedy.

With any type of live entertainment there is a relationship between the audience and the performer. And nowhere is this more pronounced than with comedy entertainment which, when performed at the highest level, is much more like a dialogue than a monologue. The audience might be able to chat amongst themselves and still enjoy a rock band, but not so with, say stand-up: to be successful the craft requires an audience that is totally engaged.

A professional, experienced and talented comedian knows when an audience isn’t with her and will prattle, prod and engage an audience until she knows they are focused and only then will he get to the heart of her act and the business of making them laugh.

But how, you may ask, can I make a comedy entertainer’s job as difficult as possible?

Let’s say you’re a professional event planner or someone who is otherwise responsible for planning an event for your company. You’ve done your homework and found an comedian who is accomplished, a pleasure to work with and perfectly suits your needs. Now the question is, what can you do to thwart this his remarkable talents and years of experience and make everyone in attendance uncomfortable at the same time?

Here are a few simple things you can do to ensure that the delicate, essential bond between an audience and a comedian is tenuous at best or, better yet, never established in the first place.

Schedule The Entertainer Immediately After A Break

The room is pumped. The most-popular, hardest-working guy or gal in the company has just received his well-deserved award from the CEO and the energy in the room is at its peak. Whatever you do, don’t harness the audience’s energy by immediately introducing to the stage the entertainer you’ve budgeted a sizable sum to procure. Instead, have the CEO, emcee or whoever has the floor to announce a break “of about 15 minutes”. That should be enough time for the room to deflate, the energy vanish and allow the stragglers to head back into the room and settle into their seats while chatting with their fellow fellow employees about golf plans for the following weekend.

Seat The Audience At Round Banquet Tables

For the love of God, you’re not going to ensure that all the seats in the audience are facing the stage, are you? No, no, no. When an entertainer walks on stage you want roughly half the audience facing the back of the room. That way more people will be able to tell when the line for the open bar is down to only a few people. You might also consider leaving the doors in the back of the room open, allowing those seated with their backs to the stage to “people watch” the smokers, stragglers and maybe even catch a glimpse of that woman from the coat check with the ineffable aura about her. Ideally, you want these people who face the back of the room to be completely unaware of what is going on on the stage. Think muzak.

Serve Food During The Show

When a world-class comedy entertainer and a mediocre salad go head to head, the salad wins every time. Anything requiring utensils is best – after all, people are capable of enjoying a comedian with finger food like popcorn just as they are capable of enjoying a movie. Of course, it never hurts to have hard-working servers bustling from table to table pouring water, grinding pepper and sending that steak back to the kitchen until it’s done right.

Arrange For A Large, Empty Space Between The Stage And The Front Row

Nothing is more conducive to an attentive, engaged audience like seating them as close to the stage as possible. There’s an intimacy to this seating arrangement that mimics the openness and rapport of an private conversation. This is why you want a large empty space surrounding the stage. Many venues place a small stage against the wall of a large banquet hall and surround it with a large, empty dance floor: this is the ideal way to ensure your money and reputation go to waste. Nothing sends the the audience the signal “You have nothing to do with this performance” quite like seating everyone no less than a metric mile of the edge of the stage. This way audience members can chat with each other throughout the show while feeling – wrongly – that it has no impact on the overall performance.

The above are just a few basic, feng-shui examples of how to ruin the entertainment portion of your event. The truth is, there are almost as many ways to ruin it as there are second-rate entertainers to ruin it for you.

Do you know other ways to ensure that entertaining at your event is as uphill a battle as possible?