At a Professional Speakers Association meeting a guest speaker asked the audience to play a little game with her and she gave us some confusing instruction (at least to me) about what she wanted us to do. She then said we had several seconds in which to complete the exercise ’starting now’.

As I understood it, part of this exercise involved noticing something new about the person sitting next to you, something personal, and commenting on it to that person. I was still trying to figure out what her instruction meant exactly and so was unsure what I was supposed to say. In the end, the meaning I thought I had divined, and the ‘new’ thing I had noticed about the person sitting next to me (an interpretation I had made from a gesture she had made earlier in the evening) prompted me to say something confused and peculiarly insensitive which must have sounded like insulting nonsense to the lady next to me. To her credit she did not take offence (or at least did not make it known to me) and we persevered with the exercise.

However, this faux pas troubled me for some time after the speech had finished and I was feeling strangely resentful of the speaker but didn’t really know why.

The following day I watched another speaker who also got his audience to perform various exercises. I half-heartedly joined in but again, felt uncomfortable about it. Fortunately I was sat in an isolated position at the back of the audience as I had come in late, and so did not have to interact with a stranger. The ‘joke’ of the exercise was that it could end up in some embarrassing outcome if he asked us to do certain things but in the end he did not and it did not. The possibility was always there though.

And this is why I feel uncomfortable about these ‘blind’ exercises. The speaker could ask anything of the audience and the audience would have to go along with it until they came to a particular instruction that they would refuse to obey – ‘everyone take their clothes off and dance around deliriously‘ for example. The line where this would occur would differ for everyone. For me, I’m chalking the line almost immediately (I can’t stand dancing). As soon as I am in a position of subservience (the pressure from the rest of the willing audience is practically an order to conform) I resent that position and resist any attempt by the facilitator to exploit it. If the speaker were to demonstrate the entire exercise with the probable outcome before he asked us to do it, fine, I can assess what is being asked of me and consent or refuse according to how I felt about the exercise. But to blindly follow any order.. that’s the thin edge of the wedge.

Then I read Influence by Robert Cialdini and using hard scientific research it explained exactly why I felt uncomfortable.

The speaker, in asking me to perform certain exercises, was setting me up in a small way, to be consistent so that I would comply with much larger requests which may be asked later on (the speaker may or may not ask me to do these bigger things but they are using the same technique as someone who would be deliberately trying to manipulate me). In fact in the book it actually states that you can be alerted to such a strategy by a gut feeling which is telling you something is wrong with a request or situation. My gut usually works overtime in such situations.

As a result I have now come to a click, whirr decision about such matters to simplify things for me. If I am in a similar situation again and a speaker asks me to join in any exercise I will simply refuse. I will explain to the person sitting next to me or the group I have been assigned to that I am uncomfortable with the exercise. If challenged, I will explain I thought I had a choice in the matter, or had I stumbled into a dictatorship? If pushed for an explanation I will say the nazi’s started off by asking their officers to demonstrate small commitments of their consistency before asking them to perform bigger ones and anyway, I was there to see the dancing monkey, no-one told me I had to dance.

So if you are in an audience of whatever kind and the speaker asks everyone to join in and someone doesn’t… that’ll be me.

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