I imagine that after reading the first sentence of this article you’re questioning my sanity. But, I promise that it’s with complete mental clarity that I assure you that whether you’re the keynote speaker at a major trade show, addressing your board of directors or pitching a prospective client, you will only be successful if you view that speaking opportunity as a conversation not a one-way presentation. What you want to say is only part of the story…
What is powerful communication? Both speaker and audience are highly engaged.
There is give-and-take, speaking and listening. There are two or more parties involved in a conversation and the memorable conversations are those that interest both parties.
You prepare for a conversation differently than you would for a presentation. You respect your audience by anticipating their interests. You create your remarks to involve your audience and evoke a response. The all-too-typical painful attention paid to the wording of your three-page speech or bulleted slides is only a very small part of your preparation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” We’re communicating in ways beyond the words we labor over (and over and over…). In fact, 93% of your communication impact has nothing to do with the “blah-blah.” In most presentations, only 7% of your success is determined by the words you choose. In contrast, how you deliver those words is responsible for 38% of your effectiveness and your non-verbal delivery accounts for 55%. Your non-verbal delivery includes how you use the “stage area,” your use of presentation medium, and most importantly how you connect with your audience.
Too often we lose sight of the individuals in our audience – the human beings with their own agendas, needs, interests, pains and passions. When we focus on building a connection – human to human vs. presenter/expert to audience or vendor to prospect – we ensure that what we’re saying will be heard. Always anticipate in what ways what you have to say will make the individuals in your audience more successful, smarter, better or even happier. Consciously think about the “WIIFM” (“what’s in it for me?”) factor. Any good conversationalist knows that you want the person with whom you’re speaking to feel important, valued and appreciated. Think of those people with whom you’ve had a conversation who’ve made you feel as if you were the most important person in the world, and that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than speaking with you. That’s how you want to connect with your audience when you’re a public speaker. Demonstrate to your audience that you value their time, attention and intellect.
Another way to build a connection is to convey your passion for the presentation topic –as you would in a one-to-one conversation with a friend or family member. What excites you about what you’re saying? (Hint…if there’s nothing that excites you, you can’t excite your audience.) Convey that passion as you speak. Punch the words and points that are important to you and that will help you audience palpably feel your passion. Further, in order for the conversation to be successful – for your presentation to be a hit – you need to relate your message to your audience’s passions. Authors Chuck Laughlin and Karen Sage, in their book, Samurai Selling, remind us to help our audience feel passionately – to feel a sense of urgency. “Samurai referred to this sense of urgency as ‘living as if a fire were raging in your hair.’” The authors go on to say, “How do you set his hair on fire? By creating strong emotions!” And, here’s the best part….you get to play fireman by dousing their fire (problems) with your hose (solutions).
Anticipate Presentation Peaks:
Several years ago Business Week reported that the typical U.S. executive has an on-the-job attention span of six minutes. According to the Northwestern School of Speech, the average attention span of an audience is nine seconds or shorter! That attention span is even shorter for anyone in the workplace today who has a BlackBerry interrupting you constantly to let you know that you have a new e-mail message. Technology has rewired our brains so that we require more constant stimulation. That means that as a speaker, we need to present in short "scenes" or segments. In each scene there needs to be one major point or takeaway (a nugget). And, the way you deliver that major point lets the audience know that what you’re saying is important.
Further, the average presenter talks at a rate of 120 words per minute, but the human brain can receive input from 400 up to 600 words per minute. The mind wanders during the "idle cycles." The answer isn’t to speak more quickly (though many of us try.
It’s a fact that attention and interest tend to decline during the body of your presentation unless you do something to stimulate the conversation, the two-way engagement with your audience. Your audience is generally interested during the opening; you've got them for the first few minutes...but those minutes better be well-spent! Interest returns again when the speaker says, "In summary," or "To wrap this up..." The challenge is to grab hold of your audience at several points during the body of your presentation. Remember, your conversation is two-way. Don’t let the audience have a passive experience. Anticipate creating multiple "new peaks" – a change in the way you’re connecting with your audience. Here are some “peaks” to try:
Listening is an important skill of the good conversationalist and public speaker. In a conversation, you would never just talk and talk, without giving the other person an opportunity to respond. Okay…some people do, but they’re the people you don’t want to sit next to at a dinner party or on an airplane. A good conversationalist is an excellent listener. Former GE CEO and business guru Jack Welsh once said about a trusted advisor, “He really is a great advisor…He listens better than anybody else.”
How do you listen as a presenter? Two of the presentation peaks introduced above -- open-ended questions and polls – are great ways to listen to your audience. But your audience actually sends you signals throughout your presentation. You know when they’re engaged in what you’re saying because they nod in agreement, interrupt you and ask for elaboration, or just sit forward in their seats almost leaning towards you. You also need to listen (and notice) when they’re losing interest…when they get too relaxed and comfortable in their chair, when they take out their BlackBerry and check their e-mails, or when they doodle vs. take notes about what you’ve just said. Those inattentive signals are telling you to change your delivery or move on to different content that the audience will find more compelling or relevant. Don’t just keep plodding through what you wanted to say because your audience has stopped hearing you.
Find Comfort in the Conversation:
Finally, framing your presentation as a conversation makes the experience less intimidating. You become less self-conscious as your focus shifts from you to your audience. Most of us are comfortable having a dialogue, exchange or discussion – all synonyms for conversation. As you feel more comfortable – and confident -- you become a more dynamic speaker.
Whether your audience is one, one hundred or one thousand, you will be most successful as a speaker when you view your presentation as a conversation and build connections with your audience, create an active experience, and listen to what your audience is telling you.
Beryl Loeb is founder and president of The Loeb Group, a professional development resource that helps CEOs, senior executives, managers and professional teams learn how to communicate persuasively, lead distinctively; and manage with confidence and passion. The Loeb Group offers individual coaching and group workshops, designs and facilitates team retreats and important meetings. The Loeb Group consults extensively with communications agencies and corporate clients. To learn more about The Loeb Group, visit their website: www.theloebgroup.com; or call Beryl Loeb at 781-449-7212.