Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Faking live audience approval: It's not just the president

Here is a photo of a typical audience. You'll notice the great variety. Some are well dressed. Some look like they just rolled out of bed. Some are paying attention to the speaker, others to the screen in front of them, still others to the person taking this picture. Some, no doubt, are sleeping. Some are plotting how to leave to get more coffee.

A couple of years ago, a speaker was referred to me for coaching. He emailed me, suggesting I look at a video of him "speaking to a live audience" that was posted to his LinkedIn profile. I don't normally review videos before signing on with clients, but for some reason, I did this time.

It was the strangest speaker video I'd ever seen, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why, so I watched it again. And again. And then I noticed what was bothering me. The audience, unlike the one pictured above, was uniformly beautiful--both in physical characteristics and in their outfits. They were neat. They were handsome.

They also were uniformly interested in the speaker. They faced forward. They mouthed "ohs" and "ahs," nodded their heads in affirmation, nudged their neighbors and pointed at the speaker, took copious notes. They applauded as if on cue.

They were, in short, a hired audience of actors.

I turned down that gig, but marveled at the mix of bravado and insecurity that led to that video. After all, a speaker who thinks a coach can be fooled by a fake audience has bigger issues than I can fix. And now the rest of the world knows how I felt, since the new U.S. president has begun the practice of bringing his hired guns into audiences to ensure crowded halls and an adequate amount of applause.

So far, he has packed his own cheering section into a press conference and a speech at the Central Intelligence Agency, both events to be televised live. Thanks to sloppy press coverage, we're only just hearing that this was a staple of his campaign events, too. And it's taken hold enough to be parodied by The Onion in Trump Deploys National Guard to Press Conference for Standing Ovation.

I'm hoping no one outside the White House sees this trendlet and decides it's now okay to put fake audiences into the rooms where they are speaking or giving press conferences. But I know better. I hope communications pros are ready when someone suggests this, ready to say "We're not that desperate for the publicity." And I'm hoping reporters turn around and look--really look--at the audiences in the events they are covering, and ask questions about who's present.

If you think none of those things can happen, consider the worst example I've ever heard in years of doing my workshop for communications pros on working better with experts: The healthcare CEO who wanted music played when he entered events, "just like the President." So don't tell me that the White House ideas don't trickle down to your leadership. Get ready, as longtime Washington aide Jack Valenti used to say, to bring forward the three most important words in the nation's capital: "Wait a minute..."

I always recommend to my clients that they keep staff crowds out of press conferences for just this reason. Don't get caught doing this, folks. There are easier, more honest ways to get attention. The shame is that the President of the United States apparently hasn't figured that out.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Top Rank Marketing)

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