When you're challenged by an audience, do you suffer a panic attack or think on your feet? Here's how to learn this essential skill!
If you or your team want to be great presenters, you have to learn how to think on your feet. There's a world of difference, after all, between suffering a panic attack when you're challenged, and responding with expertise, good humor, and a nimble mind.
Even more impressive is the ability to read an audience, deciding what their needs are before they've even expressed them.
Sound impossible? Not if you're knowledgeable, have prepared well, and demonstrate a third critical ingredient: being present enough to closely observe what your audience is showing you. If you can achieve that third attribute, you may just amaze your listeners with your ability to keep them fully engaged and interested at all times. (To learn more, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
Writing Isn't Speaking, and Vice Versa
A speech or presentation is an oral performance: an opportunity for a community made up of a speaker and an audience to share an experience in real time. It's completely different from the twin solitary tasks of a report prepared beforehand that is looked over at the reader's leisure. (For more on the performance skills involved, see my article, "The 5 Key Body Language Techniques of Public Speaking.")
Yet how poorly we're educated when it comes to speaking skills! We spend literally thousands of hours in classrooms in elementary, middle- or junior high shool, high school, college, and graduate school or professional school learning how to read and write, and virtually no time whatsoever on speaking skills, listening skills, the skills of negotiation, and so on.
As a result, we are all fairly comfortable at gathering written content in preparation for presentations, and mediocre to disastrous at delivering it dynamically and engagingly. Our comfort zone remains information, while our audience needs us to be practicing influence. And so we present with blinders on, trying above everything to get through our presentations with our heads still on our shoulders.
We have little time or inclination to learn how to be fully present in an oral performance, watching and adapting to how an audience is responding to what we're saying. In a phrase: "thinking on our feet."
Proving Your Worth as a Speaker
What happens in your presentations, then, when challenging questions and objections start coming your way? Or suppose you’re asked to reason your way through a thorny hypothetical situation when you thought you had all the bases covered?
Download my free presenter's guide on "How to Survive the 7 Danger Zones of Q & A."
Rather than fear such situations, you should welcome them—for these are precisely the occasions that will prove your worth as a speaker. If you can grapple with tough questions while retaining a mastery of your subject matter, your credibility and influence with your audience will soar.
So how do you accomplish this feat?
You do it by bringing nearly total concentration to your task, uninterrupted by distracting thoughts or irrelevant observations ("I wish I'd had more time to prepare," "They certainly don't look very friendly, do they?"). Here's my article, for instance, on 10 ways to stay fully focused when speaking. Nothing helps more in this vein than simply developing the discipline to stay completely on task. You're like the major league batter up against the league's best pitcher: you'd better know how to bear down with 110% concentration to the situation you find yourself in.
But you also do it by paying complete attention to what's going on around you. Whatever your level of knowledge and expertise, you're worth little as a public speaker until you've developed the ability to be a skilled observer of other people. Here are two ways you can do that:
1. Listen with your whole being. Open yourself up completely to the nonverbal communication your audience is giving you. That means using all five (or six) of your senses. If that means getting over yourself to be fully present for your listeners, that's a tough love message you may need to tell yourself.
Watch how people are reacting to what you’re giving them. When people make comments or ask questions from your audience, pay attention not only to what they say, but how they sound when they say it. Mark their physical response. Make sure your antennae are deployed to receive their emotional reaction as well as their verbal response. By reacting in these ways, you’ll be fully present to a degree you never imagined possible. Your listeners will not only be impressed—they’ll be amazed, because few public speakers are this attentive to their audience.
2. Expect a reaction. Most of the time, audience members won’t respond actively to what you’re saying. Audiences are preconditioned to be passive and unresponsive; and even people who are intensely interested in your topic won’t show it outwardly. But you should speak as if you could get a reaction from anyone in the audience any second now.
Imagine how poised and potentially responsive that will make you! Being this focused and ready will keep you fresh and looking and sounding completely in the moment. Then, when you do get a reaction from an audience member, you’ll be able to react to it instantly. Just as important, you’ll be demonstrating an honest presentation style that shows you’re right there with your listeners, every second of the way.
Speak (and perform) in these ways and you'll truly be reading your audience and thinking on your feet. Chances are, you'll gain a reputation as someone who makes something happen in the room when you speak. And you'll also be a presenter your audiences like listening to.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Anyone can give a practiced presentation, but great speakers respond convincingly.
- If you observe your audience closely, you'll be able to keep them engaged.
- A speech is an oral performance, which means you must respond in real time.
- To have presence, simply practice being completely present. Makes sense!
- Be poised for a reaction at any second. You'll be ready when one comes.