Over the last two weeks, I’ve been conducting my “Speak at Your Best!” workshop for teachers and business professionals in Todi, Italy. It’s been a great experience to offer the training in this Etruscan hill town in the beautiful Umbria region of the country. Among the lessons I myself have learned is a reminder of how important it is to “speak the language of business presentations,” whatever your national or corporate culture.
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The workshops are sponsored by The Language Center, a school in Todi that teaches English to Italian business people. This year for the first time, The Genard Method has established a collaborative effort with the school, which is on the forefront of helping professionals in Italy develop their communication skills.
I’d like to share with you four lessons from this training that have value for all of us who speak in today’s global business environment. First, the language of effective business presentations truly is an international language that isn’t dependent on geographical boundaries. Second, performance techniques are the core of dynamic public speaking. Third, successful communication trumps any particular language choices you make; and fourth, your relationship with your audience matters greatly.
Let's take a look at each of those assumptions.
How Business Presentations and Acting Are Similar
The workshops I conducted in Todi (pictured above) were structured to educate the English-language teachers at The Language Center on The Genard Method, before I led workshops for the Italian business professionals. The teachers were tasked with preparing the students in terms of English proficiency for the three-day training they’d be taking with me. Since the students were all management-level executives who’d studied previously at the school, two days of linguistic preparation was considered sufficient.
The Genard Method is a performance-based approach to public speaking training, so the teachers (all of them non-actors) needed to be briefed in the specifics of the Method to get the students ready. So the first thing we discussed were the similarities between public speaking and acting. This is a core element of the system which I developed, consisting of theater-based techniques for business presentations.
Have you ever considered the similarities yourself? In a building next door to the starkly beautiful San Fortunato church built in 1292, 14 teachers and I discussed the topic. Consider the affinities between theatrical performances and business talks:
- The audience is the key element of both forms of communication.
- Both consist of a single individual or team (an “ensemble” in theater) speaking to that audience.
- The performance space (stage, boardroom, conference room, etc.) is centrally important to both events.
- Attendees can be profoundly moved by what is being said and shown.
- The visual element is essential.
- An effective performance by those appearing on “stage” is expected.
We could have added to this list. The point, I think, is that if you are aware that your speech or presentation is a performance—dramatic if it needs to be—you may approach your appearances differently from speakers who don’t think that way. After all, it’s called “giving a speech”. When you offer your audience a true performance, the material you’re discussing grows exponentially in immediacy, relevance, and power.
It’s Not About Language It’s About Communication
When I began my workshops with the business people, I shared a story about one of my clients who shared an aspect of their own lives. This individual is a native French speaker, who happens to have a heavy accent. Since he also spoke quickly, he often received feedback that his listeners couldn’t understand what he was saying.
He came to The Genard Method inquiring about accent reduction services. I told him my philosophy that rather than work in that area, I prefer to coach and train clients on their overall speaking skills. As these people become more able speakers, I reason, their accent will become less important.
That’s how it worked out with this client. I worked with him to change his focus from himself and his content to the needs of his audiences and whether they were getting what he was trying to give them. In other words, if the reception of his message became uppermost in his mind, he would be more successful as a speaker. He validated this approach when, near the end of his sessions with me, he said, “All of this will help me even when I’m giving presentations in French!”
Like this gentleman, my Italian students were naturally focused on their ability while speaking in English. It was part of my job as a speech trainer to convince them that their success in communicating their ideas mattered more in the end than an accent or an occasional incorrect use of a verb tense.
The Dynamics of Performance in Public Speaking
Now we were ready to delve into what I consider the heart and soul of dynamic public speaking and effective presentations: the performance skills involved. The four I discussed in the workshops were these:
- Stage presence. Clearly, a characteristic that needs to be present for both acting performances and public speaking! Rather than a mysterious quality embodied only by Broadway actors and movie stars, think of it as simply being fully present for your audience. In other words, pay as much attention to their responses and engagement as you do to your own sensations.
- Relaxation and focus. Ever notice how many speakers, if not overtly nervous, don’t appear at their ease in front of others? The exposure and self-consciousness of public speaking often make us close up, protect ourselves, and generally erect defensive barriers against audiences. But how can we expect them to have confidence in us if we don’t show them our true selves—at our ease and enjoying the interaction?
- Body language. Visuals are always important in a public speaking situation, and sometimes they dominate. The most important visual on display when you speak, of course, is yourself. The body is a key tool of communication, since it gives physical expression to what you’re saying. Here are the 5 key body language tips of public speaking.
- Vocal expressiveness. Along with body language, this is your most important performance skill as a public speaker. Your content can never live on its own. It is your job to give it meaning and immediacy through your vocal expressiveness. To say this another way, your voice is essential to eliciting the emotional responses you want your listeners to experience. For your audience to both believe in and act on what you’re saying, that emotional reaction has to occur. Here's how to speak with impact in business presentations.
Why You Need a Relationship with Your Audience
We might call this the fifth performance techniques of public speaking to be added to those given above. It’s also the one too few speakers think of. But this particular speech dynamic is just as important as the others. That’s because you need to establish a sense of rapport with listeners for ideas to flow smoothly back and forth.
Audiences need to trust in your honesty to open themselves up to you. That response is necessary if you’re going to move them in the direction you’re aiming for. To give yourself a head start by understanding your listeners more, here’s how to conduct an audience analysis.
The true language of business presentations is a language of performance. It doesn’t reside in your notes, your PowerPoint deck, your charts and graphs, or your handouts. It is the language of one human being at a time talking to other human beings about a topic they share an interest in. It is the most exciting of languages because it can change many people’s lives at once. And it depends much less than we may think on the native language we employ or the accent our listeners hear.
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