What Do You Do When Nobody Shows Up?

Several years ago, I was tasked with finding an audience to attend a lecture my boss was scheduled to give at the Phoenix Zoo.

I had no idea what I was doing.

My job was to act as a media relations professional—not to book live audiences—but I did my best. I worked with the Zoo’s communications team to include a notice in their upcoming newsletter and send postcards out to their most active members (this was before the days of social media).

I knew our PR efforts would reach many thousands of people, so I booked a room that could seat about 200 people. On the day of the event, my boss set up his PowerPoint in the front of the room while I stood at the Zoo’s entrance to greet any attendees.

I was lonelier than the Maytag repair man. About eight people showed up.

Imagine the scene: My boss, who had expected a couple of hundred wildly enthusiastic fans, stood in the front of the room with a hangdog look. Eight lonely people were scattered among a sea of empty chairs. It was a disaster.

That experience taught me a lesson about what to do as a speaker when you encounter a smaller-than-expected audience: turn it into a virtue.

Empty chairs make clear to the audience that you’re almost certainly disappointed with the turnout. So surprise them. Instead of showing your disappointment, enthusiastically tell the group:

“This is great! I was going to give a more formal presentation, but now we’ll have the opportunity to have a really productive dialogue instead. How about you all come up toward the front, and we’ll all just sit together?”


The next time only three people attend your book reading, or six people show up at your conference breakout session, or eight people make it to your company’s open house, don’t apologize. Greet your audience with enthusiasm, make the session less formal, sit with them, and deliver a less formal version of your talk that features more conversation than you originally planned.

You’ll impress the audience with your grace under pressure. And you’ll provide them with more value than they originally expected.

Has this ever happened to you? How did you handle it? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.