Never Give A Speech Without Having A Potato

Every Speaker Must Respect The Power Of A Potato
Every Speaker Must Respect The Power Of A Potato

Bored audiences will get up and walk out of your speeches. How would you keep the attention of 400+ engineers who were attending an industry dinner event that they didn’t really want to be at on a weekday evening? I recently had the opportunity to be the master of ceremonies at such an event – great gig, tough crowd.

The banquet’s master of ceremonies (MC) last year had tried very hard, but had ended up not being able to hold the crowd’s attention and they had started to leave before the event was even half over. This year’s planning committee presented me with a challenge: find a way to keep the audience in their seats until the end of the event. It turns out that a single large baking potato was a key part of my solution to this problem…

Not A Speech, But Rather A 3-Act Play

Two weeks before the banquet was to be held, I had a meeting with the planning committee. The banquet is an annual event for all of the engineers involved in transportation in the Tampa, Florida area. I had been asked to be a co-MC for the event in order to help make it a success. The trouble was that I know next to nothing about the transportation industry.

The other MC knew a lot about the industry having worked in it for over 25 years. This was a perfect pairing – his smarts and my creativity held the key to our potential success.

The planning committee wanted to focus on the future of transportation in Florida. Since this was not a typical speech, there wasn’t a speech to prepare. Instead I was looking at creating a play with three acts: an opening, then a second act after the banquet’s first speaker, but before its second speaker. Finally, there would be a third act that would close out the evening.

The Initial Plan: Potatoes Everywhere

Never one to be at a loss for ideas, my initial plan to the team was to propose other forms of transportation that people may not have thought of: catapults, rocket launchers, etc.

I took my plan one step further and proposed that we get someone to come up from the audience, put an apron on them, and then have them try to carry as many potatoes as possible across the stage. They would end up dropping some and we could say that a better transportation system was called for.

I had other ideas that involved the same potatoes: have planning committee members stand on one side of the stage and try to throw them into a bucket held by another committee member. Lots of potatoes were going to get hurt doing all of this.

In the end, the planning committee flatly rejected my potato idea. The possibility of someone getting hurt was just too great and it was sending a negative message about the transportation solutions that are currently being planned for Tampa. Sadly, I think that they made the right decision.

The Next Plan: Jet Packs

The clock was ticking and we were starting to run out of time. We went back to the drawing board and my co-MC did a web search and found all sorts of images of future transportation systems from the 1940’s and 1950’s covers of Popular Mechanics and Popular Electronics magazines. A new idea started to emerge.

Instead of saying anything negative about Tampa’s current transportation plans, how about if we came up with our own vision of the future of transportation? Make it so outlandish so that everyone knows that it’s not a real plan, but incorporate all of that futuristic stuff that everyone has always believed is coming.

I thought that this was a great idea – with one addition. I wanted to have it all lead up to one thing: a proposal for a jetpack based transportation future. Hey, everyone loves jetpacks and engineers especially love ’em. The planning committee agreed and one of the members even agreed to build a mock jetpack for us to use.

What This All Means For You

So how did it all turn out you ask? The evening was a smashing success. The audience was riveted to their seats – they had to know how this 3-act play was going to come out. Not a soul left before we told them that the show was over.

My co-MC did a great job of reaching out and drawing the audience in using his deep knowledge of the transportation industry. The three-act play did its job by hooking the audience’s attention in the first act, extending the story in the second act and building up to a big finish in the third act.

The crowning point of the evening was when my co-MC brought out the Jetpack model and put it on and announced that the event was over and he was leaving to go home. That was what the audience had been waiting for!

Oh, and the potato? I had brought one to the event as a backup just in case things didn’t go as planned. We ended up setting it on the podium and not talking about it, not moving it, not doing anything with it. It drove the audience mad with curiosity: why was the potato there? What were they going to do with it? Talk about holding an audience’s attention!

What have you done that has helped to hold your audience’s attention during one of your speeches?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Just like a cheesy pick-up line, the first words that come out of your mouth when you are giving a speech will determine if you are going to get lucky with this audience.  How are you going to score?