[Sounds of Silence] What Do You Do When No One Says a Word?

We’ve all been there: chairs are out, snack food is plated, some – or no – people show up, and after your presentation you’re greeted by the sounds of silence.

Such was the case with my first gratis (read “no fee” aka “free” ) master executive coaching session hosted by professional development web portal and facilitation firm partner KnowledgeCrush this week.

A handful of people attended the teleconference – no one said a word, asked a question, and as far as I can tell, even coughed or yawned. And unlike an in-person session, where the knowing gaze can elicit a comment or question for people even in near-stupor, there is no good way to prompt discussion or questions on a teleconference when you don’t know the participants.

So what do you do?

The first thing, as my former Barclays Global Investor’s colleague Joanne Medero might proffer, is don’t take it personally. She might add that people behave well or behave badly for all sorts of reasons: not participating by remaining silent at a meeting could have everything to do with the event or nothing to do with the event.

Second, have clarity about the purpose of the session before you hold it / them. Was it to have as many people as possible attend the event, or was it to extend a welcoming hand to people who wanted and were able to show up? Sometimes just doing the latter brings the greatest rewards. Last year when a board of trustees on which I sat did a series of community “coffees,” my take was that just the fact that we did well-publicized outreach was great in itself – having people show up and ask questions was like a cherry on top – all gravy.

Third, some things take time. Just as Cragislist, the worldwide go-to place started by Craig Newmark for running and reviewing advertisements started small and in one city, sometimes the things that start small can end up really big. Track progress: like watching blog readership levels, see where you attendance and participation goes from session to session.

Fourth – and a little navel gazing – is the structure and the content of the event meaningful? The adage about you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink is true. Attendance and participation are two very different sets of behaviors. You need to figure out if both, one, or none is most important as a metric to determine success of an event.

Fifth, it might also help to re-review public speaking basics to make sure you crossed all the “t’s” and dotted all the “i’s” you meant to. After 30 years of speaking to groups, Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker is my new go-to resource for those type of solid foundational basics.

Last, very few people ever complained when an event got out early. No cries of “Damn you: you gave me some free time!” have ever been heard. When people participate – whatever their level –  thank them for coming, and use the time by doing something also worthwhile – like blogging.

P.S – For anyone who is interested, a podcast of the session – “How to Say Yes (When You Really Mean ‘No’)” will be posted on KnowledgeCrush in this section under Management & Executive Coaching early next week.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.