This week, I was in a city in Poland to host an event— the grand opening of a gigafactory of electric batteries for cars. The representatives of the company, the CEO, executive vice president, some of the board members, as well as representatives of the local government were present at the event.
When giving his speech, the mayor of the city spoke about how the opening of the factory was a landmark event for the city. As he recounted the day he got the memorable phonecall telling him about the city being the chosen location for the factory, he made a subtle gesture toward someone in the crowd. I picked up on that small cue and figured that he must have been the one who called the mayor that day and delivered the news to him. Thinking it would be good to approach him once the mayor was done, to have an authentic moment where he shared his memory of that day as well, I approached him and introduced him into the conversation. Even though he wasn’t expecting that, he was pleasant and responsive and his participation brought a liveliness into the event. For the audience, it is always like a small, awakening shock when someone in the audience gets approached. It makes them feel more involved in the event, and helps them realise they are active participants in a way. But there is also a risk involved with this kind of an approach.
It’s always a bit of a risk to approach someone at an event when they are not expecting it. They might not like being approached, they might hate being singled out in the spotlight, might get stressed and so on. Thankfully, on this particular occasion, both the speaker as well as the person in the audience responded positively and there was a playful exchange which left the two as well as the audience in good spirits.
After the event, I stopped and thought about the exchange and how it could have been different. There have been a few instances when such an impromptu exchange had not been well-received by either the person themselves or the organizers. So what determines the outcome?
Communication expert David R Novak says that we forget that whoever we speak to “gets to interpret” what we are saying to them and that they “get a say in how communicating goes. To fail to recognize that others will interpret as part of communicating, is a failure of perspective.”
The interpretation that I have to always bank on, based on intuition and experience, is if someone seems approachable or friendly enough to be asked something. In turn, I have to remember that the audience are open to interpreting me asking them a question in a positive or negative light. Some might welcome it but other times people may be so afraid of the spotlight that they would like all moments at an event to be as foreseeable and predictable as possible. Then my approach would be unwelcome. It is a balancing act, a bit like walking on a tightrope — figuring out the person to ask while remaining open to the possibility that it might get taken negatively.
Experiences like these have taught me that to have authentic and engaging moments at an event, no matter how brief, it is necessary to take a risk and engage the audience in conversation. Even though the possibility of failure is there, there is also the possibility of the satisfying reward— a more memorable and interactive event.