People Need To Feel Safe In Order to Participate

Editor’s note: This is part two of our five-part series, The Psychology of Public Speaking. All five posts in this series are excerpted from 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People by Susan Weinschenk.

The best event I’ve ever been to was a performance by Bobby McFerrin.

His performances involve music and extensive audience interaction. I saw him in a 1,500-seat theater in a small city in Wisconsin. The theater was full and the audience was appreciative but reserved. By the end of his 1.5-hour performance, he had the entire audience on the edge of their seats ready to do anything he asked of them, including coming up on stage.

Bobby McFerrin photo by Steve Jurvetson

He is a masterful performer, and he is a master at getting people to participate. He does this by slow commitment and by using the group. You are sitting in a theater with a lot of strangers, and you don’t want to look silly, but he gets you to make one small noise, a single simple note. Everyone around you is doing it, so you do it, too. He then builds on that one participation and asks for a little more and more, until everyone is freely participating.

What Bobby McFerrin is a master at is making people feel safe. He never ridicules or makes fun of anyone. His body language and comments make everyone feel that they are doing great—doing exactly what he expects and knows they can do.

It feels safe to participate.

Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of PearsonEducation, Inc. and New Riders.

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