To be a great public speaker, you have to go far beyond delivering information. Here's how to connect with an audience for lasting influence.
What type of speaker are you?
Whether it's a keynote speech or an everyday presentation, these days it's easy to find speakers more concerned with their reputation and income than in creating lasting influence. In other words, there's a conspicuous absence of benevolence in terms of serving the common good.
You don't have to look toward national politics to see it, though it certainly is in evidence there. When we're not actively hoping these speakers would vanish, we sense that we won't long remember the things they said. Can it be that the benevolent speakers—leaders like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa—have faded into the mists of history?
I, for one, certainly hope not. Leadership, after all, is about positively affecting the lives of others. To do that successfully means fostering a maximum level of engagement with audiences.
Want to become an unforgettable speaker? Go beyond simply delivering information to establishing true influence with stakeholders. Download my essential cheat sheet, "Leadership Skills: 5 Essential Speaking Techniques."
Do you know how to engage audiences for great public speaking—conveying to listeners that your performance is all about them? Can you get on their wavelength and stay there for the length of your speech? Here are 20 ways to connect with an audience in public speaking. Practice these tips, and though you may not become one of the great public speakers, you’ll be one who demonstrates good will in everything you say and do.
20 Ways to Connect with a Public Speaking Audience
- Get out from behind that lectern! Apart from making you a static speaker, a lectern is a physical barrier between you and those you're trying to reach. Let audiences see all of you.
- Wear a lapel mic that lets you move around. Your performance needs to be as visually interesting as your slides. That means moving, and using full-body communication.
- Make solid and realistic eye contact. Forget the rules of how long you should look at listeners and all the rest. Make a point of looking at everyone, or all parts of a large audience, for a normal amount of time. Here's more on how to dramatically improve your eye contact.
- Get your body (and facial expressions) into the act. There’s an old B-movie called They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Do not emulate this approach! Your body language and facial expressions are clues that you know what you’re doing, you love doing it, and audiences can trust you.
- Have a conversation with your audience. The Age of Speechifying is long gone, and even formal presentations are now informal. You’re at your best when you’re having a conversation with friends, which is what your listeners should sense they are.
- Use humor and a self-deprecating approach. There will be plenty of time to drive home your serious points. Let the audience understand first that you’re not full of yourself, and you’re fun to be around. Speaking of humor, here's why you should never start your speech with a joke.
- Live in the world of your audience. Understand that in the public speaking solar system, the audience is the sun and you are a planet revolving around it. Always conceive and deliver your speech in terms of the audience’s needs and desires. Want to get better at understanding those needs? Learn how to perform an audience analysis.
- Use “you” and “we,” rather than “I” and “me.” Self-consciousness and the desire to do well leads us to focus on our success as speakers. Instead, let the audience hear that they’re the reason you’re up there on stage.
- Ask frequent questions, including rhetorical questions. This will remind the audience that they are an active partner in this enterprise. Your speech is all about them, after all, and it should sound that way. In a 20-minute speech, there should be at least a dozen times you should ask them something, i.e., “You’ve seen this many times, haven’t you?” You needn’t expect answers.
- Include the three adult learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Some people learn best from what they see; others respond strongly to what they hear, and still others think in terms of physical response. And though you can’t lead listeners in hands-on exercises, you can say, “Try to grasp this concept,” and so on.
- Use shared cultural references. The latest remarks or behavior in terms of shared culture fly around the globe at warp speed. People will immediately feel the connection with each other, and you.
- Tell stories. Speakers often feel the need to present data on its own because it’s important. But do you lose anything by weaving your content into an engaging story that has people at the heart of it? You do not. Here is the most powerful storytelling technique for public speaking.
- Break up your talk. People can read a report whenever they have the time—but they must listen to you in real time. Think in terms of delivering segments that listeners can absorb and retain.
- Use concrete, specific language. For the same reason as the previous point: your language should have immediate impact. It’s one of the ways you can enliven your speech and keep it engaging. Think Churchill, in virtually anything he said in public.
- Speak visually. That is, create “word-pictures.” We see, and even think visually now, and audiences expect information to contain a visual component. In addition to your slides, use metaphors or descriptions to help listeners create a visual image in their minds.
- Employ pauses. Your audience needs to take a breath! The fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline may push you to speak more quickly than usual. After a surprisingly short amount of time, your audience will feel exhausted. Give them some breaks.
- Get closer to listeners whenever possible. Physically and literally. Go to both ends of the stage, come downstage closer to the audience, or roam among the audience if you have that luxury. Literal closeness leads to the metaphoric kind.
- Speak from notes. Don’t memorize or use a manuscript. Memorizing a speech or reading from a manuscript are both behaviors that keep you out of moment-by-moment engagement with your audience. (When you memorize, you’re actually in the past retrieving each segment of your talk.) Audiences expect even experts to have notes handy, and don’t mind when you glance at them.
- Thou shalt not, on pain of death, read thy PowerPoint slides! Your job is to amplify, support, explain, clarify, or put in context what’s on the screen. That’s the reason you’re there in person, doing what a simple PowerPoint slide can never manage on its own. To win the "gold," this is how to create powerful and persuasive slides.
- Move naturally to all the parts of the stage. Every speaker knows about body language, but too few of them use the stage itself as a tool of physical expression. Watch exceptional performers on stage—no matter what their art form—and you’ll understand the power of movement on stage.
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