How To: Planting a Shill in the Audience

How To: Planting a Shill in the Audience

When partners in crime
give a speech that’s divine... 

By Kristen Johnson, ACB, CL

Music doesn’t do much for people,” I began, sinking into the rhythm of my speech.

“Balderdash!” someone yelled – my guest no less – interrupting me.

“Shh, Nate! I’m doing a speech here…”

“Well, you’re wrong about music!” And then he walked on to the stage with his guitar, sat down, and began to play. My audience was unprepared for this – you should have seen the looks on their faces! But soon, they realized I had tricked them, and that Nate’s act was a part of the speech. They relaxed and had a lot of fun as we “played” them.

Yes, planting a shill in the audience is a sneaky trick. But when used properly, that person can really help you maximize the impact of your message.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but how do you do this, and do it well? It will require careful planning to pull it off and make it look unplanned, but it is well worth the effort.

First, decide who to use. In the above example, I brought in someone from the outside so I could come up with a legitimate excuse for the presence of a guitar at our regular Toastmasters meeting. However, most times you need to use someone within the group so that no one will suspect your deception. In that case, choose someone close to you and swear that person to secrecy. The key is that you must rehearse together at a time and place away from your meeting. Toastmasters are a savvy group, and they will notice you rehearsing in the hallway!

Also, the cues have to be well-planned, and it’s best if you say them verbatim. Although you can ad-lib a bit during the speech, you cannot ad-lib cues, or you’ll run the risk of confusing your shill and ruining your scheme.

Just how do you impact the audience? Most speeches are pretty straightforward. However, sometimes you want to add humor, or drive a point home without sounding preachy or self-righteous (especially if the speech topic is something you feel strongly about).

Your shill can make this happen for you. For example, when I performed the “Make ‘Em Laugh” speech from The Entertaining Speaker manual in the Advanced Communication Series, I wanted to explore what makes comedy funny to us, but it seemed silly to stand up there and lecture about the rules of comedy. I imagined the audience members nodding off in their coffee while I blathered on and on…zzz.

So I decided to act out comedy in the form of improv, (à la “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) and planted a shill… well, actually I planted two shills. (Pay attention now – this is advanced stuff!)

                    “Show, don’t tell, and you’ll have the audience eating out of your hand."

The first shill became my partner in an improv game with a pre-planned ending. We decided to play a game in which the audience calls out the emotions or behaviors of the players. For example, we start the scene and I am “crazy.” Then a member claps, we freeze, and that member calls out, “Kris, joyful.” We then pick up the scene right where we left off, except that now I act joyfully.

Obviously, I could not guarantee which emotions the audience would choose or in what order. Enter, my second shill. I chose a friend who had acting experience to set up the moment. She waited until the light turned green (which was her cue) and then she called out my partner’s name and switched her to “rage.” That was the cue. My improv partner picked up a cake (also a shill in the form of a prop) and smashed it directly in my face.

It was perfect! The audience was shocked, and there were even some screams! They laughed and yelled so loudly that the manager of the restaurant poked her head in to see what was wrong.

While this is an extreme example, you can see how a shill can make it much easier for you to execute your speech. My point in this example was unsaid but nonetheless made: An unexpected twist makes comedy effective. Saying the words just doesn’t have the same impact as leaving a Toastmasters meeting with frosting in your ears.

If you are delivering a professional speech for an organization, planting a shill is a bit trickier. Also, I would not recommend the cake idea.

So what to do? If you bring someone from the outside, you must have a plausible reason for them to be present. The easiest way is to introduce your companion as the person who will help you demonstrate your points. This can be a highly effective way to make your point quickly, or to instruct the audience in exactly what you want them to do without that long, tedious explanation. Show, don’t tell, and you’ll have the audience eating out of your hand.

Your companion can also assist you with answering questions, passing out materials, changing slides or transparencies, and even manning your back room sales table.

Another tactic is to ask someone in a corporate audience – perhaps your introducer? – to help start the ball rolling during a Q&A session. Give them a planned question or two to ask. The people who are paying you for your expertise might actually appreciate this thoughtful gesture and consider you quite the smart one.

Above all, be sure your shill is poised enough to handle the job. I have made the mistake of choosing a shill that I thought would rise to the occasion. What happened was every speaker’s nightmare – he didn’t react to his cue. I even blatantly signaled him and he still remained lost in a fog, forcing me to ad-lib an ending. So I learned: Be sure you’ve have prepared for any and all disasters and have a contingency plan ready to go.

There is definitely an art to shill-planting, but it can be a highly useful tool in your bag of speaking tricks. Use it sparingly and wisely. Plan it out carefully and it will serve you well.

Kristen Johnson, ACB, CL, is a freelance writer, professional speaker, improv performer and active member of Hardhats Toastmasters in San Diego, California. Reach her at