How good are you at connecting with audiences and taking them on a journey? If you want to achieve presence in public speaking, that needs to happen!
Last week in this space, I shared my belief that as speakers we often get in our own way by, well, putting ourselves there. We allow our Big Brains to complicate things (I wrote), when our task is really simple: being present with audiences and sharing ideas with them.
When we keep things simple in terms of what we're there to do, we can be there to do it! More than anything else, that means being mindful of the journey we're taking listeners on. The essence of public speaking is sharing—and being aware at every moment of whether you're getting through to your audience. (It helps if you've made an effort in your preparation stage to frame your ideas in terms of that audience.)
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Successful Speaking Means Connecting
People who come to public speaking from an administrative or event-oriented standpoint tend to underestimate the power of performance. For instance, Chris Anderson of TED says that “getting the words, story, and substance right is a much bigger determinant of success or failure than how you stand or whether you’re visibly nervous.”1
I don’t believe this is true. I’ve attended enough academic conferences to tell you that nearly every speaker gets to center-stage and reads their research paper, word for word. The “substance” is certainly right. But the experience is about as exciting as watching an animal lie sleeping in a cage at a zoo. There’s no energy and vitality—no blood racing through the veins.
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No matter how technical, scientific, or analytical a talk is, it has to have some of that blood in its circulatory system. Here’s an example.
I often train physicians and hospital leadership teams in presentation performance. A few years ago, I was conducting a daylong seminar for a group of oncologists. Over lunch, one of these docs said to me: “You know, I travel around the world to hear leading scientists and researchers in my field. But so often, this person will get to the lectern and bury his nose in his notes and drone on and on. Within five minutes, everyone is looking at their cell phone. I get so frustrated, because I spent time and money to attend this conference. And it's a huge waste of time.”
Clearly, these scientist-speakers are getting the substance right. But the absence of performance skills is a key factor in their failure as speakers. The lesson here seems obvious: The moment of connection between you and the audience is the very essence of successful public speaking.
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Would You Be Interesting Reading the Phone Book?
Have you heard the expression, usually said of actors, “He could read the phone book and make it interesting”? In other words, the performance itself can be riveting regardless of the substance. Here’s a situation where I experienced this myself:
When I was training as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, I would see a play at least twice a week. After all, I had the entire West End (London’s equivalent of Broadway), as well as The Royal National Theatre at my disposal.
One evening, some of us attended a performance of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the National. Starring in the play were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, the two actors who—along with Laurence Olivier—are often considered the greatest actors of the twentieth century. For the first twenty minutes or so of this play, there are only two characters on stage—the ones Gielgud and Richardson were portraying. I was mesmerized by the performances of these two giants of the stage. And I distinctly remember how disappointed I was when the rest of the cast made their appearance. Here was the phone-book-effect in action: Richardson and Gielgud could literally have been reading off names in a telephone directory and I think it would have been a thrilling experience!
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It's Time to Give Your Audience An Experience
What does this mean for you as a speaker, presenter, or participant in a virtual meeting? Like an accomplished actor, you need to give your audience something more than the mere delivery of data. You need to offer them an experience.
Anyone can read from notes or a slide deck. Speaking with presence, however, does something very different—it jolts your audience with a surge of electricity and excitement. Once again: you are taking listeners on a journey. You’re their guide. If you want the experience to be memorable for them, it has to involve a lot more than having information thrown at them.
1 Chris Anderson, "How to Give a Killer Presentation," Harvard Business Review, v. 91, issue 6 (June 2013).
This article is excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in video conferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence. Contact Gary here.
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