A lesson from Steve Martin: Know your audience’s expectations

By Kendall Martin

Understanding an audience’s expectations is an important part of any agreement to speak. If you are invited to an event to deliver a speech or take part in a question-and-answer session, make sure you fully understand what the audience is hoping for.

Steve Martin, comedian, actor and author, found out the hard way how not meeting an audience’s expectations can result in disaster. In December of 2010 he had just released his novel, An Object of Beauty. He was invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y, a nonprofit community and cultural center, with New York Times writer Deborah Solomon in a question-and-answer format.

The questions guided a conversation about art and artists. After all, Steve Martin’s recent book release was about a New York City art dealer. And the event was in a cultural center.

But the event bombed. The 92nd Street Y issued a refund to patrons and apologized through email for a disappointing evening.

What went wrong? The audience was expecting to see Steve Martin—the famous actor and comedian. They wanted to know about his movie career and personal life. They wanted the Hollywood representation. They weren’t there to hear about his art collection or favorite artists.

This event serves as a lesson to anyone who is invited to speak. Make sure you have covered all bases with the inviting organization. What are they expecting? Who will be in the audience? How is the event being marketed? What are the topics people want discussed? Come prepared and avoid a speaking disaster.

Have you ever been disappointed that a speaking event was “not as advertised”? What happened?

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