Every day, the world provides riches that can improve our knowledge and skills as public speakers. We should always look beyond our profession, of course, for ideas and connections we can use. But sometimes information that will help serve both our needs and those of our audiences will truly surprise us.
That happened to me this week, as I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal. The story was a piece by Lucette Lagnado entitled, “Men and Women Face Cancer Differently.”
I mentioned the article to a client I was coaching because I thought it made sense concerning how she approaches her presentations. And then I thought, “This contains a powerful message for all of us who need to engage and activate audiences.” So that’s what I’d like to share with you today.
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Why Your Content Isn’t the Be-All and End-All of Your Presentations
Lagnado’s piece in the WSJ concerns how men and women process information differently when faced with a cancer diagnosis. A study commissioned by New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center tracked thousands of posts on “leading cancer forums and other online communities” from men who have prostate cancer and women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The study showed that men in this situation were found to be “analytical, methodical and date-driven in assessing their options.” The women, by contrast, “were typically distrustful of scientific data and even of their own physicians, [and] anxious that their cancer might return[,] . . . favored aggressive treatment such as double mastectomy.”
As a speech coach, I was reminded strongly that emotions are a powerful engine driving audience response, and a speaker's content doesn’t always carry the weight he or she thinks it does. In fact, the essence of the public speaking situation is largely about that emotional connection we make with our listeners.
Too many speakers ignore this reality, however, and become intimate with their topic while leaving audiences starved for affection. Below are three ways you can plan and execute an effective public speaking performance that prevents an outcome like that from occurring.
Understand Your Purpose and How to Engage an Audience
Public speaking isn’t about delivering information, as many presenters believe. Instead, it is always about influencing an audience positively. The following three steps in your preparation stage will get you on your audience’s wavelength (and vice versa) and help you create that positive influence:
- Perform An Audience Analysis: “Who?” should be the first question in your mind when you’re tasked with speaking to a group, not “What?” (in the sense of “What’s my topic?”). For until you know as closely as possible the make-up, needs, preferences, experiences, and desires of a group of listeners, how can you know what that “what” will be? Find out what will turn this audience on with regard to what you have to offer them, then flip the switch. Here's how to conduct an in-depth audience analysis. And here's how to assess your own organization's needs for presentation skills training.
- Find Your Specific Purpose: It’s never enough to give audiences information on your topic. You must always think in terms of the thoughts, feelings, and actions you are trying to evoke in your listeners. The more specifically you understand what you are really trying to achieve in concrete terms, the more likely you will bring in precisely the information that will make that happen.
- Build in Engagement: Even then, your preparation isn’t ready. Essential information will never reach home if your audience is disengaged, bored or zoned out during your performance. Think specifically of how you will get the audience engaged as early as possible and keep them in that frame of mind. Don’t kind-of sort-of have an idea of what you’ll do—bake in specific elements of contact, as though you were inventing a delicious recipe of engagement. To help you hook listeners and keep them hooked, learn these 7 ways to be a more exciting public speaker.
Place Your Relationship with Your Audience Front-and-Center
Once you’ve planned your talk this way, continue your preparation with your audience at center stage rather than your content. That generally means that you should stop gathering content sooner than you normally would.
We’re all perfectly comfortable in the world of our professional expertise, which is why we usually spend too much time there. You already have content coming out of your ears! But are you always comfortable in front of groups of people, no matter how large, chatting with them easily even when the stakes are high? If you're not, those are the skills you should be focusing on at this stage of getting ready to speak.
You truly must live in the world of your audience as fully as you can, in both the run-up to your talk and your actual presentation. None of this, “I need to get through all of these slides,” or “I’ll be glad when this is over!” Instead, you should be paying attention at all times to your audience's desires, and in performance, what’s happening right in front of your eyes.
Practice Mindfulness and Presence while Speaking
And that’s where mindfulness and presence enter the equation in public speaking. To be mindful is to fully occupy the current moment whatever your activity, so you’re totally engaged with the situation and people at hand. (Here are 3 great excercises to improve your mindfulness and focus as a speaker.) That is, presence—that mysterious quality we all want to embody when we speak in public—is more than anything just a question of being present! Discover these practices of "on-stage magic" to transform your public speaking. When you're ready to put it all together, get on board with the 7 leadership qualities of great speakers.
Body language, eye contact, head nods, questions asked, and all other signs of whether an audience is with you—exactly where you need them to be at every point—should be your full focus during your speaking performance.
Notice how far you'll have come from the speaker who crawls into a corner comfortably with his or her content while the audience is banging on the door! The bare substance of your presentations can’t move listeners to action by itself. In fact, content's strong suit of organization, data, and logic can't achieve the influence that should occur.
That's your job as speaker. You happen to use information to do so, but your secret sauce is your understanding of people and your embrace of the performance dynamic.
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