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.

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. Universal delight is not possible.
Universal delight


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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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!

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

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