Who deserves a standing ovation?

by Scott | 6/22/2009
Standing ovation at Cannes

Standing ovation at Cannes (from wikipedia)

Much like clapping and applause, standing ovations are curious things.  The idea, in theory, is that when a performance is so exceptional that clapping isn’t enough, people in the audience should stand to show an additional level of appreciation.

I think this is cool and great and the more kudos great performers and speakers get, the better.

The problem is there has been a kind of standing ovation inflation.

You can see it in politics, where it’s expected certain leaders get standing ovations by default. In these environments standing ovations are mandatory and expected.  They convert what is supposed to be a spontaneous and responsive act into something quite official and often meaningless. And in some cases it can be seen as an insult not to stand and give an ovation, much in the same way not clapping can be seen as rude.

Rock bands are notorious for milking the equivalent of standing ovations by leaving the stage without saying they’ll be back for an encore. Then they wait for the chanting of the bands name, and come out as if the whole charade isn’t done in every venue in every city.

I’ve also found it in the arts. When I moved to Seattle, I found the number of standing ovations very high, particularly at dance or theater performances.  My friends and I would look at each other in surprise as if we’d missed something – the shows were good, yes, but exceptional? No.

Our pet theories on ovation inflation are as follows:

  1. The audience so much want to believe they’re a part of something special that they stand up to help make it seem special. (“It was amazing! They got a standing ovation!”)
  2. They don’t get out much and can’t put what they saw in perspective.
  3. They want to be polite, as is often the case in Seattle, and take being polite too far.

I believe in conservative use of ovations. It’s the atomic bomb for an audience – you can’t do any more. Once you do it, you’ve told the performer it’s the best thing you’ve seen in some time. If you give many speakers ovations, as I’ve heard happens often at TED, you’re diluting the ovation. Unless you’re willing to invent something to top ovations, keep them in reserve.

In my 15 years of public speaking, I’ve only received one standing ovation I can remember. It was my last lecture at Microsoft before I quit, where I finished by playing a song about writing specs, solo on guitar. I can’t play well or sing well, and I suspect the ovation was mostly for having the balls to do it at all.

Two questions for you:

  1. How do you decide when to give an ovation?
  2. If you’ve ever received one, do you think you deserved it?

8 Responses to “Who deserves a standing ovation?”

  1. Steven Levy Says:

    Last lecture at MSFT — as someone who was there, I think the ovation was a chance to show appreciation of all the work you’d done at Microsoft, culminating in this lecture. Or maybe we were being polite….

  2. Jason Crawford Says:

    I agree that there has been ovation inflation. I lean towards the “misguided politeness” explanation.

    I don’t stand unless I am particularly impressed, except occasionally when everyone else around me is standing and I can’t see. (Even then sometimes I’ll stay sitting.)

  3. Scott Says:

    Jason: That’s a good point. There is a cascading effect.

    I have stood in part because the people in front of me did, and in order to keep seeing what’s going on, which then causes the people behind me to have to stand.

    This happens at sporting events too. It’s sort of a false ovation – to whoever is on stage it seems like an ovation, but it’s really a bunch of people trying to see.

  4. Josh Says:

    Scott, I personally agree with you about standing ovations – I participate, but it’s often reluctantly, once I start to feel like a curmudgeon with everyone else around me standing and applauding.

    That said, I don’t trust my private feelings of inflation and nostalgic yearning for the days of yesteryear when “it really meant something” (or whatever).

  5. Sean Landry Says:

    I agree with the ovation inflation especially at the State of the Union address. I think the way to remedy this would be to take away the seats of the Democrats (vice versa when a Republican is president) that way we don’t get the awkward “should I stand?” moments.

  6. Scott Says:

    Good comments all – it’s made me think perhaps I’d rather there are too many ovations than not enough. It’s such a subjective thing anyway.

    And Steve’s comment counts – if it’s the only chance you think you’ll get to see someone perform, and you’ve loved them for years, the ovation may be more about wanting to express that larger feeling than a commentary on the specific performance.

  7. Timo M Says:

    Standing ovation is one of the necessary evils of these days. It doesn’t really hurt to stand and clap your hands and perhaps it makes someone’s day.
    Like coming to work and saying good morning, or asking your cousin’s namesake “how are you”… meaningless gestures, there is no content (perhaps it is even a social agreement?), and the result is often rather neutral (will you really care or remember how that person was doing, or did you count how many person’s replied to your good mornings and in what way?).
    In my opinion we just do these gestures just because it is the lesser evil: if we would not do it, we might stand out, and isn’t that the worst thing a person can do? It may be culturally bound, but perhaps the fear of standing out is bigger than the bother of standing up?

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