Whether you're pitching business or delivering a keynote, listeners are buying you as much as your message. Or are they? Here's how to be 'human' enough that audiences love you!
My client, a passionate environmentalist who founded a nonprofit to help the world deal with global warming, had a problem.
He wasn't coming across as particularly human.
Well, I'm exaggerating . . . a little. What I really mean—and you've seen it a thousand times yourself—is that even when speaking to his own workforce, it didn't seem like he cared much about what he was saying. You may be wondering: "Is that really possible with someone who does care, and feels a strong need to communicate it to others?" Add public speaking to that equation, and you'll realize that this disconnect is not only possible, but common.
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Remember, the speaking persona you display is the way you communicate your thoughts and emotions in performance. It doesn't matter that the message is elegantly expressed in your speaking notes, manuscript, or PowerPoint slides. If you don't look and sound like you mean it when you say it, listeners won't buy it.
Which was exactly the situation with my passionate—though unconvincing—environmentalist.
In fact, it's never enough to simply convey the information you need to get across. When you speak in public, your job is to change lives in ways large and small. So audiences don't need to merely accept you—they need to believe in you. There's no other way to truly get them to open up and be willing to be changed by you.
Here are four ways you can accomplish that critical transaction.
Be Real, Honest . . . and Vulnerable
To begin, avoid the mistake of playing it safe. A major reason most presentations are boring and sink without a trace, is that the speaker is intentionally doing what everybody else has done. If that's the accepted way [presentations] [lectures] [pitches] [keynotes] are done in these situations, well, it just makes sense to do your presentation the same way, doesn't it?
It does not. Part of my practice is helping people overcome fear of public speaking. In almost every situation, speakers with stage fright try to defend themselves when they're on stage. Instead of standing out for visibility and acclaim, they'd rather stay under the radar and, basically, get out of the stressful speaking situation with their skin intact.
But you want to be recognized and applauded, don't you? That will never happen if you try to blend into the background, like every other presentation in this venue. Few things are as revealing as standing in front of an audience—just you—and sharing something that's dear to your heart. Being willing to show your true self, in all of your vulnerability, is the only way we'll trust you and like you. That's the you that's unique and therefore interesting! So, stake a claim.
Make Listeners Comfortable Using This Technique
Here's the perfect way not to be upstaged by your data and give listeners a comfortable feeling about you: Feed your content to the audience in bite-sized pieces.
Once again, most speakers don't consider the difference between written information and that same content delivered to an audience. Listeners (unlike readers) absorb information in precisely the time it takes to hear it. Your job is to make that easy for them. It's actually amazing how much data audience members can absorb if it's presented to them at the right pace.
Time and time again, I coach my clients to think of and deliver their talks segment by segment. Each section of your presentation, that is, is really a mini-talk, interesting and easily absorbable by itself. But it's your responsibility to signal to the audience each time: "That's the end of THAT idea . . . here comes the next one." The best way to do this is to pause, say something in the way of a transition, and inflect your voice slightly as you start the next section. This gives the audience time to process what you've just talked about, and be ready for the new (and therefore interesting) segment that's coming.
Tell Stories That Are All About Your Audience
Emotion is the currency that makes you likable and memorable for an audience, not data. While the information you impart may be essential for an audience to know, your lasting impact resides in how you make them feel.
Here again, too many presenters misread the public speaking drama, casting themselves in the role of messenger. But that's only a starring role in ancient Greek theater (in early tragedy, violence always occurred offstage, and the messenger was the one who described it). If delivering data was all that mattered, why would we have invited you here to speak? Your content will do its job fine, but you have a different part to play. Think of it this way: your job isn't to deliver the goods. It's to create good.
That requires an emotional connection, and that means storytelling. Understand, I don't necessarily mean telling stories—though you should be storing and sharing actual stories as part of your talks. What I really mean is delivering your information as a story. Your overall presentation is a narrative of some kind, and you should weave your data into that story (e.g., "Our success in streamlining our operations, and the next challenge we're facing"). Also, look for ways to give pertinent information as a "little" story within your larger narrative, as I did above with the mini-lesson on the ancient Greek theater.
And remember: To make your story as powerful as possible, always frame it within the context of your audience's needs and desires. Ultimately your story, however universal you may think its message, is all about your listeners. The more they can identify the elements of your story with their own lives, the more they will like what you're saying and doing.
Are You In a Human-to-Humans Relationship?
This is what your appearance comes down to in the end, and is the key to getting any audience to love listening to you. The essence of the public speaking situation is performance. So what happens on the stage and in that conference room should never be only about the transfer of information. It should always be about the transformation of people's lives.
You won't always, of course, be giving talks on grand themes that change society But the ways you will influence listeners' thoughts, emotions, and behavior, even if those ways are small, matter greatly. There's really only one way to make that happen: to get in there and mix it up, connecting with the folks in the seats and not just reading information to them.
Recently, an audience member asked me a question along these lines at the end of a keynote speech I'd just delivered. "I've always heard that if you're nervous on stage," he said, "it's best to look at the back wall of the auditorium, so it looks as if you're speaking to the people in the back row. Is that a good idea?"
"That's a silly idea," I replied. The audience laughed at that, though I wasn't trying for humor. "Who do you think will be easier for you to convince," I asked: "the wall, or your audience? The wall won't be able to listen to you, and to be positively changed by what you're saying."
Then I finished my reply with a comment that might have had this article in mind: "And of course, the wall won't love you back."
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