3 ABCs of Presenting to Your Audience
The three commandments of presenting are as easy as ABC.
1. Thou shalt not be Arrogant.
2. Thou shalt not be Boring.
3. Thou shalt not be Confusing.
Let’s take a look at how you can obey these sacred rules.
1. Thou shalt not be arrogant.
Once upon a time I had a colleague who thought he was the cat’s pajamas. He was a lot of fun, but boy did he think highly of himself.
He referred to himself in the third person, as Bob Dole did when he ran for president. “Bob Dole doesn’t tear down American values,” Bob Dole would say. “Bob Dole builds them up.”
My cocky colleague could remember and tell a thousand jokes, which he cracked over the heads of others to unmask their vulnerabilities and disguise his own.
At the end of his presentations, he often stepped off stage and whispered to anyone within hearing distance, “And that’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
Arrogance can be defined as claiming for ourselves qualities that we don’t in fact possess. To be arrogant is to have unrealistic feelings of superiority.
While some people are drawn to a speaker who thinks she is God’s gift to the presentation platform (perhaps because of their need for a strong leader), most of us are turned off by arrogance. We find it offensive.
But let’s face it, public speaking is frightening, so some of us either contract psychologically or we puff ourselves up to project something bigger.
Both approaches undermine the essential task of highly effective presenting, which is to build a personal connection–an emotional connection with an audience.
Two things can help you avoid the trap of arrogance. The first is the willingness and ability to give your audience the experience of knowing you. The second is to give them the experience of being known. Nothing is more powerful.
2. Thou shalt not be boring.
However, being real does not prevent you or me from being boring. My goal as a speaker is to have inscribed on my tombstone, “He Bored Them Less.”
If you like people to pay attention to you, try the following.
- Begin Well. In the science of communication, there is a thing called the Principle of Primacy, which means that people tend to remember the beginning of a speech or presentation. All’s well that begins well. Craft an opening that draws people out of their own heads and into yours. For instance, tell a story, hold up a prop, or say something that challenges the thinking of the audience. For instance, the Dalai Llama once started a speech at Radio City Music Hall by saying, “I don’t want to offend any Christians here, but…an old man? In the sky? With a beard? Are you kidding me?” Of course, in that forum, he was playing to his crowd.
- Be Funny. Don’t tell jokes, unless you are blessed as a comedian, but people who are funny have an unfair advantage over those of us who are serious. (But then serious people have strengths that comedians lack.) Nevertheless, it’s fun when the speaker has a sense of humor.
- Define a Problem. Question: What are people most interested in? Answer: Their own problems. If you can demonstrate an understanding of the problems the audience faces, and you dare to make them uncomfortable for a few minutes as you remind them of their problems, your solution to their problems will seem that much more heavenly, and believe me, they will listen.
- Know the Limits of Speech. Public speaking is not the ideal forum for communicating massive amounts of information: the written word is more suited for that task. The spoken word is best suited for capturing the imagination, weaving stories, and arousing emotion. Use the right tool for the job.
- Use PowerPoint Sparingly. PowerPoint can be useful, but it can be deadly dull. For the audience, it creates a hybrid experience, half verbal, half visual, which can diminish the power of both channels. To use it well, craft headlines that express a point of view. Use pictures whenever possible. If you must use words, use key words only and make them legible in the back of the room.
- Tell Stories. I had a professor who shouted at the top of his lungs, “No data without stories, no stories without data.” Data arouse suspicions about methodologies and objectivity. Stories, on the other hand, while anecdotal, engender the willing suspension of disbelief. Data cause us to analyze. Stories help us synthesize. Together, they make for constructive creative tension.
- Boost Your Vocal Presence. A good speaking voice isn’t boring because it sparkles with change, changes of pitch, volume and speed. Its appeal is enhanced by the use of the pause. Make every word count.
2. Thou shalt not be confusing.
Some of the topics you have to talk about are complex, or unfamiliar to your audience, and it’s hard to get into the material and make it clear.
Here are several ways to approach the problem.
- Make It Like a Book. Books begin with a table of contents. When a chapter ends, there’s a blank page and a clear indication of a new chapter. This continues to the end, where there may be an index, or a bibliography offering the reader a chance to explore other aspects of the topic. Presentations of complex material need something similar: a spoken table of contents, which is called Tell ‘Em x 3. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. And then tell them what you told them. The repetition of the main ideas–once in the introduction, then in the body of your talk, and finally, for a third time, in your conclusion, makes it more likely your audience will grasp your message.
- Keep It Interactive. Encourage people to ask questions. I hate it when I don’t understand what a speaker is saying and I’m not allowed to ask questions. I find that I stop listening. It’s like having an itch that I can’t scratch. Keep your eyes on your listeners too. Watch for facial expressions that signal confusion and jump in. But don’t say, “Joe, you look confused.” Blame it on yourself. Say, “I suspect I wasn’t clear enough. What’s on your mind?”
- Tickle, Then Soothe Anxiety. Our minds fasten on problems, puzzles, and unanswered questions. Use this knowledge when you speak. The anxiety of not knowing creates curiosity and gets them thinking. If you can arouse that emotional energy, your listeners will generate the intellectual focus to stay with you. And when they do, you can present your soothing solution, and they will listen.
- Strike a Balance. Wise men and women have said that most of the troubles of the world come from two profane tendencies in human nature: (1) treating as simple, things that are complicated, and (2) making too complicated, things that are simple. Your audience craves only an optimum amount of complexity. You can satisfy this craving by adding complexity to some of your talks, and eliminating it from the complex ones. Anything that clutters the high road to your key points needs to be swept away. Better they understand the big idea than they get lost in minor irrelevancies.
Bottom line? Be accessible, interesting, and clear.