Speeches and presentations offer uniquely rich opportunities to connect with and influence audiences. Every talk, pitch, lecture, or presentation is an occasion to change how people think, feel, and behave—or should be. Time and attention are extremely valuable commodities listeners spend in the hope that their investment will pay off handsomely. It’s our responsibility as speakers to meet that demand.
Yet too many of us approach presentations from a weak starting point, believing that our job is to convey information. Even presentations that aim to educate, however, are not primarily delivering information, but only using information to accomplish a purpose. We really should be out to change people’s thoughts and behavior, never simply regurgitating facts, reading bullet points aloud, or expounding upon data in brightly colored graphs. When we make this mistake and think in terms of merely delivering information, “content” becomes king. The chances then become very good that we’ll spend most of our preparation time collecting data of various kinds.
To achieve true influence, however, we must travel beyond information to connect with audiences on a deeper level of shared human experience. Speeches and presentations are like theatrical performances—for they embody a sense of community. The feeling engendered between speaker and audience of “working together toward a common solution” is far more likely to achieve the result the speaker is looking for, while at the same time serving the needs of listeners.
Rather than focusing on conveying content, then, use your presentations to create a bond of shared experience. This means using techniques that allow you to establish a strong rapport with your listeners. You should always be looking for ways to reduce the emotional distance between you and your audience.
This article outlines three ways to achieve this level of rapport, and to foster a sense of community with listeners. Something should change for the better when you speak. What follows are three ways to more fully connect with and move audiences, and in the process, find your own voice.
Try to Live in Their World
What does this mean?
Buddhist philosophy reminds us that for all of us, life is hard, and so is public speaking. Self-consciousness and nervousness are common when we present to groups, and for some of us, the sensations rise to painful and even debilitating levels. It is easy to turn inward when we feel this way, wrapping ourselves in our own uncomfortable situation and giving in to negative self-talk and fear.
But living in such an “I” universe can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. If our energy is directed toward ourselves, we’ll have none left to give to our listeners—the very people we’re trying to influence. What audience wants to be mostly ignored by a speaker?
The key is to direct all of your energy and efforts—everything you have—to reaching and establishing a connection with your audience. This means not only eye contact, but paying careful attention to the nonverbal communication coming your way, and playing off what you see. Keep tightly focused on your line or argument, or take a different tack if you see your listeners are confused or uncertain. Speak to them directly, asking a question or soliciting some other response if you sense that your audience is becoming disengaged, is zoning out, or otherwise losing interest. When your chief concern is the benefit your audience is receiving from your talk, you’ll naturally sound like you’re interested in them, because you will be.
How do you do it?
- Direct all of your vocal and overall energy outward toward your audience, none of it inward toward yourself. Watch, watch, watch what’s happening with your listeners: Do they get it? Are their eyes locked with yours? Are they making the connections between what you’re saying and their own world? Do you need to verbally make that connection for them?
- Activate your listeners. Remind audience members that they are the be-all and the end-all of this presentation: they are the reason you are here! Your audience should realize that passive attendance is not possible during your presentations. You can mirror physically the responses that they should have, so they can get it and go along with you. Remove physical barriers (such as lecterns, tables, and overly formal seating arrangements) between you and your listeners, and get close to them. Visit all parts of the room if you can—and if you can’t, do it with your eyes and arm gestures that “reach out” and toward that part of your audience.
- Say it: Use the word “you” rather than “I”; and “we” if it means you (speaker) and the audience, not your company. Present your argument in terms of the audience’s experiences and understanding. They will hear the language of true interest for them and their needs.
What are the benefits?
The number one benefit is reaching your listeners where they live and breathe! If I’m an audience member and you talk about what concerns and interests me, I will hear it in everything you say and show me—and I will respond. Now I’m tuned into what you’re saying!
When you’re on the right wavelength of focusing on your listeners, you sound natural, and your voice reflects your true feelings. Self-consciousness (and self-love) have their own sounds, and they are not pleasant ones for audiences.
Reminding yourself of how you want to help people also gives you the perfect through-line of your talk. Your logic and evidence become intuitive and powerful. It all becomes easier: when you’re in the zone of total audience focus, it actually becomes hard to miss, because what emerges in your speech flows easily and unobstructed and is concerned with others rather than yourself.
Another great benefit is that you’ll be diminishing your self-focus and increasing your audience focus with every word. In the best instances, you’ll be like a magician who achieves your own “disappearing act,” in which you fully become the conduit to your message. Since that message is meant only for your listeners, you’ll be laying down a rock-solid path to audience influence.
What does this mean?
Few good speakers think in terms of “giving a speech,” and no great speakers think so. The mark—one mark at least—of great speakers is that they all sound completely conversational, no matter the size of the audience. Think of it from the audience’s point of view: Presentations (with a capital “P”) are rarely interesting; but a person of knowledge and passion talking to us about their area of expertise can be fascinating.
We have evolved as a species to talk to one another person-to-person or in small groups—think about our ancestors sitting around a camp fire, telling the story of the hunt. Public speaking to large audiences is a much more artificial situation. We naturally develop self-consciousness when speaking to crowds, stiffening up and becoming more formal in our delivery. It’s not a successful survival strategy, and it definitely undermines our ability to connect with listeners and tell an interesting story.
Staying conversational, on the other hand, means we remain in touch with a natural style of speaking that sounds effortless. Imagine you’re talking to a close group of friends about the terrific movie you just saw, or the fascinating person you just went out with on a date. Your entire presentation persona—your facial expressions and eye contact, movement and gestures, vocal coloration and every other aspect of your delivery—will naturally project what you’re thinking and feeling. You’ll come through honestly as yourself, not as someone trying to “be good” in a formal presentation.
This is conversationality, and it’s a world apart from the one-way blast of information that many of us subject our audiences to. Listeners can relate to us—and to the story we’re telling—when we just talk to them about a mutually interesting subject. We are at our honest best, and the audience responds easily, since no layer of formal presentation intrudes.
All of this is to say that the best speakers don’t sound any different in front of an audience, than they do when talking to a single person in an interpersonal conversation. The secret, of course, is that it’s still a conversation, even with a larger group of people.
How do you do it?
- Make eye contact. The eyes truly are the windows of the soul, and we connect with listeners intimately when we share this personal connection. Some speakers don’t like making eye contact with listeners because then they “lose their train of thought.” To which I reply, “Who is easier to convince, another human being or the back wall?”
- Let your voice “go all over the place.” Although this advice sounds slightly silly, I mean it: This is exactly what your voice does when you’re talking to that group of friends about that exciting movie or date. Release your voice from the confines of an “excellent” presentation. It isn’t excellence you’re aiming for (because that’s impossible to achieve by aiming directly at it); it’s connecting with your listeners. Don’t hold yourself in vocally, as many people do in professional communication. In particular, use the upper reaches of your pitch. We usually indicate something important by both emphasizing and raising our pitch on a word or phrase. Doing so gives your voice the “peaks and valleys” of conversation that perk up the ears of listeners.
- Tell stories. Call them evidence or testimonials or supporting material if you like, but always be conscious of the humanity involved in your talking points. Concepts, principles, and theories are fine, but they must be enlivened with the human element to make your conversation come alive. Stories accomplish that spectacularly.
What are the benefits?
People are always persuaded by genuineness and lack of artifice. Lincoln had it right when he gave his opinion about fooling some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time. In public speaking, some people will be hoodwinked by a dazzling performance with little soul . . . but only for a while. Eventually, they’re figure out whether a speaker is talking to them from the heart, or simply giving a command performance. The sound of someone’s real voice—the conversation we have with them—is always the best indicator of their honesty and forthrightness. Even with con artists, sooner or later we figure out whether we’re hearing their real voice, or only a shallow and cynical substitute.
Appropriate pacing is also easiest to achieve when we “talk” rather than “give a speech.” One of the drawbacks to formal presentations is an ironing-out effect, in which the natural ups-and-downs of our speech are steamrolled away in our desire to be good and sufficiently professional. The real professionals don’t have to achieve any particular effect, however, except their own voice. If you know what you’re talking about, you don’t have to do anything except open your mouth and, well, talk about it.
Most important of all, you’ll look and sound like yourself if you focus on having a conversation with your audience. There is never a need to be as good as that excellent speaker you heard recently, or to be “better than you usually are” because this speaking situation is so important. You have been given this speaking assignment for a reason: You’re the only person who can give this talk in this way. That’s exactly who your audience needs and expects. The best way to give them what they need is to sound like yourself—the person they really want to hear.
Have a Discussion with Your Listeners
What does this mean?
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that speeches and presentations are a form of community: we bond with audiences and them with us as speaker, and we share an experience. If we’re speaking well, the audience and we reach an end together, arriving at our destination of shared knowledge and influence at the same time.
These facts are true because, in a sense, we are mutually solving problems when we present to audiences. Think of the way we typically approach a challenge as a group, from a neighborhood committee to a legislature: we get together and discuss the issues and possible solutions. Every speech or presentation embodies the same challenge: How can we as a group change our thoughts, feelings, or actions about this situation, so that a positive outcome emerges from this encounter between speaker and audience?
Talking at listeners certainly won’t get us anywhere! Yet how many presentations have that feeling about them: a one-way monologue in which audiences are expected to be passive and to soak up a constant stream of information aimed their way? Who can benefit from such a dynamic? And who in the world would be interested in hearing such a talk?
Yet day after day, in every industry or endeavor, presenters subject audiences to performances that hardly acknowledge them as partners in a topic of mutual interest. How much more successful we will be by giving listeners the impression that together we are confronting a matter of concern and importance.
Naturally, in any discussion the participants need to be engaged and heard from. And this is a critical part of going beyond information to connect with and influence listeners: We must consciously think of ways to engage audiences when we speak to them.
Remember the cliché of brilliant professors who haven’t a clue as to how to reach college audiences. That story reminds us that the possession of knowledge is useless if the hearts and minds of listeners aren’t sufficiently engaged to receive it.
How do you do it?
- Don’t let your audience be passive! “Discussion” means just that: Invite responses if the size of your audience and your subject matter permit it. If not, “touch” your audience frequently, by reminding them how the point you’re making applies in their world. “You’ve all seen this in action”; “Your team deals with this all the time with customers”; and “Paula reminded me before we started today that this was something we should cover”—remarks like these constantly bring your listeners back into the discussion, where they belong.
- Think in terms of talking with groups the same way you do with individuals, coming down from the heights of formalized presentations to a more relaxed and spontaneous approach. Just because people are gathered in a group doesn’t mean that our interaction with them should change. The more we think in terms of giving a prepared set-piece of a presentation, the more we’ll be divorcing ourselves from the time and the moment and the people in the room with us.
- Ask small questions. Whenever we ask a question—rhetorical or otherwise—each individual in our audience responds the same way: by getting ready to answer that question. Tossing questions to an audience is a sure-fire way to remind them that they’re part of this discussion, not passive pseudo-participants. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” “Haven’t you experienced this in sales calls?” “Let’s discuss that last point, shall we?” “Everybody with me so far?” Ask small questions like these to set up participation. Okay?
- Relish the story of each main point before you go on to the next. Don’t let this rich material fly by, especially if you’re feeling anxious and want to get this presentation over as soon as possible. As an example to illustrate this point: When we attend amateur theatrical productions and are bored with what we’re seeing, it’s not because the actors are dragging out scenes—it’s because they’re not taking enough time. We easily sense the superficiality of the performance, and we prefer a deeper involvement on their part. When you as speaker spend sufficient time on your stories, each of your main points will be like a different song on a CD, or a single gem in a beautiful necklace.
What are the benefits?
Rehearsed presentations can easily acquire a “canned” quality; but discussions usually sound fresh because we never know who’s going to say what, or when. When we have a discussion with our listeners, we mimic this dynamic because we are in the moment. We are present, discussing things with real people, in real time. A worthwhile discussion has the sense of variety, and a back-and-forth quality that draws people in. Yes, speeches consist of mostly verbal contributions by the speaker and nonverbal ones from the audience. But if you can create the sense of a discussion as I’ve talked about above, your presentation will be more immediate and involving for your audience and their interest will soar.
Finally, it’s much easier to bring your true voice into play when you’re concentrating on talking to a person rather than a crowd, i.e., having a discussion. By “voice” I mean not so much your actual speaking voice—though that’s of great importance, of course. I mean your presentation persona, including your ability to talk to audiences with immediacy and presence.
Remind yourself of the great opportunity you have to discuss something of importance with these people. Chances are you’ll hardly be able to wait to begin, and when you do, your audience will relish every moment.