The Mathematical Impossibility of Universal Delight

Seth Godin is the author of several books about “marketing, the spread of ideas and managing both customers and employees with respect”. They are bestsellers. His blog is one of my favourites and I highly recommend it. This post is part of a series based on original posts by Seth.

In this blog post from 13 March 2012, Seth addresses one of the sobering realities of public speaking: You are not going to please everyone in your audience. (At least not all of the time.)

No matter how much effort you put into preparing your speeches and presentations, no matter how much effort you put into making a connection with the audience, you will inevitably encounter some criticism or indifference or incomprehension. At the very least, you will encounter a different point of view.

But, as Seth and many others say, it’s part of the deal. Understanding and accepting this reality is fundamental for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. And once you accept it, you can focus on your material and your audience in a more relaxed manner.

Still, there are things that you can, and should, do to be ready for such moments.

  • Prepare. The more prepared you are, the better you will be able to respond to those in the audience who wish to challenge you.
  • Anticipate possible questions that might be asked. What would you want to know if you were listening to the presentation? What might not seem obvious? What might, at first blush, seem counter-intuitive?
  • Depending on the subject and the context, acknowledge at the outset that people might have alternative views on some of the things that you say.
  • Depending on the format and timing of the presentation, invite the audience to ask questions or challenge you. Taking such a position should at least earn you respect.
  • Focus on those who are paying attention. Especially when one speaks to a large audience, it is commonplace these days to see people in the audience who are reading something or fiddling with some electronic gadget. Unless they are distracting others, leave them be. Shift your gaze to those who are paying attention. (Now, if everyone is fiddling with their electronic gadgets, there might be a problem!)
  • If your answer to a challenge has not satisfied the person, offer to continue the conversation after you finish.
  • Accept that notwithstanding the above or anything else that you might do, there is a very strong likelihood that you will not please everyone on every single point.


The Mathematical Impossibility of Universal Delight

by Seth Godin

Jack Nicholson calls it, “rabbit ears.”

If you’re hyper-aware of what others are thinking, if you’re looking for criticism, the unhappy audience member and the guy who didn’t get the joke, you will always find what you’re seeking.

For it to be any other way, you’d either have to be invisible or performing for a totally homogeneous audience.

Invisible is an option, of course. You can lay low, not speak up and make no difference to anyone.

That’s sort of like dividing by zero, though. You’ll get no criticism, but no delight either.

As for finding a homogeneous audience, good luck with that. The one thing that’s true of all people is that they are different from one another. What delights one enrages the other.

Part of the deal.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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6 Responses to The Mathematical Impossibility of Universal Delight

  1. Hiten says:

    Hi John,

    This was a good post.

    The principle of not being able to please everyone certainly does exist for public speaking and in other aspects of life also. We really cannot please everyone and trying to do so would burn too much emotional energy.

    I liked the point of offering an extended answer to a question, if the questioner isn’t satisfied with our response. This is something I do a lot when I speak.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Hiten. I think that most people have found themselves, at one time or another, trying to please everyone. Realizing that it cannot be always be done is liberating and allows us to focus on the message, which in turn will please more people!


  2. michaelplatania says:

    I have also found as a speaker, I must remain true to myself. A couple years ago, I gave a speech which almost everyone loved. However there was one person that said “You didn’t follow the ‘Tell us what you are going to tell us, tell us, then tell us what you told us formula'”. He’s right, I didn’t, because that’s are the kind of speeches I give. Mine are stories, and I take my audience on a journey, and in that moment I realized I will never please him with my speeches, and that’s ok, because I’m doing it the way that works for me, and 99% of the audience loves it.

  3. Great post John.

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