I am convinced that you can rise to this challenge with a little support and your insight and motivation.
My first questions to you are these:
1. How deeply have you considered your purpose as a presenter?
2. Why will this audience be there?
I imagine that you have a pretty good idea of the answer to the first question but maybe a more vague response to my second. This is not unusual, for when the fickle finger of fate is pointed in your direction and you have to give a talk, your first thoughts will tend to turn to the content. You will think about how long the talk is and where it is what should go into your slides etc.. You may then turn your mind to the second question but most often it is a cursory glance and tends to be one of “I wonder what they will be like”, “will they like me”, will they give me a hard time”, “Can I get out of here with my reputation intact?”
To approach presentations in this way is rather like giving the best man’s speech at the wrong wedding. I have been a university academic for thirty years and remember vividly the one occasion when I was maybe fifteen minutes into a lecture aimed at teaching biochemistry to medical undergraduates only to be interrupted in mid-flow by a student who kindly asked me if I knew that they were midwifes expecting a lesson on postnatal care. Shock gave way to embarrassment and then panic when I realised that I had a room full of students elsewhere with no lecturer!
This is of course the extreme end of “not getting the audience right” but I also remember a time when I was asked to give a talk to the London Osteoporosis Society, a wonderful group of mainly elderly women suffering from a debilitating disease. I had seriously underestimated their ability to understand the science behind their condition and once again was stopped very politely in mid-stream to be asked several very searching questions. It was a brilliant way to tell me not to be patronising and give them what they needed! I learned rapidly that the audience is all.
What drives my audience?
There are many ways in which you can misjudge your audience and all of them are dangerous and mostly avoidable with careful thought, planning and swift adaptation. For example, a simple question to ask yourself is “who is my audience?”
- Are they linked by a common business type or subject?
- Is there a social, cultural or ethnic connection within your audience?
- Are they likely to be friendly or hostile?
- Are their legal implications of what the audience expects?
Then you should be asking, “What is driving this audience?” Are they interested in new ways to make more money, a means to create a fairer more tolerant society or is it that they are aggrieved that you cannot give them a dividend this year?
Whatever their driver, you must understand it as completely as possible and see the issues from their side, before you even begin to think about formulating your presentation. That is not to say that you have to side with the audiences pre-conceived views, you may not agree with them or they may be looking to you for inspiration, innovation or simply entertainment.
The Speaker – Audience contract
If you are to succeed as a presenter you need to appreciate that there is an implicit contract to be established with your audience. Just as you will give an authentic honest presentation so shall you assume that the audience will also be honest and authentic in their beliefs and views; sometimes scarily so.
What do you really want to happen?
Now consider what it is that you need to spark off in your audience, first generally and then specifically. I would imagine that your aspirations will not be too far from mine when I say that presenters normally want to their audience to:
- Remember at least something you said (especially things you thought were important)
- Think intelligently about the issues you raised and the solutions you provided (assuming that you did).
- Allow them to feel as well as think (feelings last a very long time, often long after the intellectualising has dimmed).
- Make a decision about an issue or solution you have presented (hopefully to decide that your solution is a wise one that they should adopt)
- Finally, you will want to make an impact on them that will last longer than the coffee break.
When you begin to construct your talk have these basic needs ringing in your ears, have them in large font print on the wall by your side as you write the speech or construct your Powerpoint slides. These will be the bedrock of your conversation with your audience. Remember for the period of your presentation the audience is available for you to enthral or bore, it is entirely your choice which way it goes!
The Power of stories
Now, you will hear from many in this field that telling stories is a good thing and I absolutely agree. Audiences instinctively expect stories in which they create a new perception of reality; hopefully yours. There are several different ways to consider story telling. The first consideration is that the whole presentation must be a story with a beginning, middle and an end. You cannot skimp on any component.
Take a moment and think of your favourite novel or film. There is something about that opening sentence or scene that captured you to the extent that your concentration did not. For example if you have ever seen the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia you will know that the simplest things can capture the imagination and hold it.
And so to the middle of our story. I have introduced the players (your audience) and we have learnt something of their motivation and character and we must now introduce the protagonist (you). Who are you, why are you here, what news do you bring and of whom. Are you good or bad, will you solve my problems will you even understand my problems and sympathise with me. The middle section is where you (the writer/presenter) provide enough information, enough clues and just enough insight into the situation so that the audience can make their own minds up about what is going on. Just imagine any book or film that left no room for your imagination, for your input and questioning. I know that the book would slam shut in my hands and the off switch would be hit pretty damn quickly if I were not asked to get myself involved in your story.
So dear Reader where should we go next and why?
We are still in the middle of our story – what would happen if I now start to tell a side story about raising chickens. How many of you will leave the post immediately, how many of you after only a short while will have decided enough is enough that this has nothing to do with you anymore and then leave or will you be the last person reading who is actually also a chicken farmer, but then again if so you probably would not be caught by the introduction in the first place. So, as they say “back to the plot”.
Back to the plot
Feel free to use anecdotes and stories, parables if you need to but there are three things to consider. First, is the story fresh (nothing worse than trying to re-fit an old story that everyone knows to meet your ends). Second, does it actually exemplify or amplify the message you are getting across and finally will it really resonate with this particular audience. Maybe it worked last week with another type of audience but what about this one? Think carefully about the life or business experiences that this audience may have had and pick a relevant story to tell them. If they cannot relate to your story you have lost them and it will take a herculean effort to get them back.
Talking of which, “What is your ending like”? If you were to drone on about thanking everyone for their attention and thanking everyone that has ever supported you, you will win on the basis of being perceived as nice but that may not be the impression or impact with which you want to leave them. I suspect you want a more meaningful and long lasting impact for your efforts. Again, go to great literature, film or drama and think of the best endings that have left you seething with anger, enervated, motivated, happy etc. HOW DID THEY DO IT TO YOU? THEN USE THE SAME METHODS FOR YOUR TALKS.
The end is always the bit that we rush, we are embarrassed, we have got all the important stuff out of the way etc. However, if you do not seem to be moved by what you have said at the end, why would you expect the audience to be moved by you?
Bring gifts to the party
One way to look at your presentations is to think of what gifts you can bring to your audience. However, remember this, interesting audiences are usually demanding and you need an interesting and interested audience, WHY?
You need them because you want something from them and not just applause. They need something from you and not just empty, even entertaining, words and images.
So here is my gift to you.
No it’ not just a command to go out and do it. No every good talk has at least one acronym in it and this is mine!
- P = Powerful (you must seem authoritative in your area)
- R = Relevant (the subject and content must be relevant to the audience)
- E = Enthusiastic (if you seem dulled by your subject why should your audience be any different?).
- S = Stories (stories persist in people’s minds and sometimes hearts)
- E = Entertaining (not necessarily funny it can also be dramatic)
- N = Natural (this must be you presenting, you must be authentic, you are not playing a dramatic role)
- T = Timely your information, viewpoint and solutions must be fresh, innovative, maybe even revolutionary but it must be relevant to NOW).
You want your audience to feel, think and act differently because of what you have told them. You are looking for IMPACT. The audience want this else why would they be there! So give it to them!
Prepare for this audience
Ask yourself – “If I were sitting in this audience listening to me, what would I be hoping for?
Use PRESENT – look at what you want to say and measure it against each component of PRESENT and judge what will be relevant to this audience, where will the power in your presentation lie and what is the main thrust relevant right now to this audience. Then consider each section of your presentation in order to judge the emphasis, pace and level of drama/enthusiasm required to make your point.
For example, I work in the life sciences and if I had to give a talk on drug development strategy to family doctors, pharmaceutical company executives or government regulatory authorities my content might be very similar but the emphasis will differ greatly. In this instance I would concentrate on R = Relevance in detail. In fact relevance is to my mind the most important element of any presentation. Not only do you have to consider the overall relevance of your subject to each audience but the nuance of each component of your talk may need adjustment for each group.
The Flip Side
So far everything is going swimmingly, your audience is held enthralled and falling at the feet of you the new Socrates. Hold on one minute – let’s take a look at the flip side. Have you ever spent a while (since school or college) and made a list of the things you hate about bad presenters? Let us investigate my pet hates.
- Lack of authenticity – the speaker is hiding something about themselves. Avoid this at all costs as people can sniff out a fake very quickly.
- Being sold to when it is not a selling event.
- Being patronised – this exudes arrogance
- Out of date information or views
- Misjudged me and my background
- Poor physical presentation – mumbling, “you’re not looking at me damn you, I’m really here!”
- Over running – lack of respect for me and my time. I need to do other things today.
- Boring – usually has taken no heed of the relevance to this audience nor appears to care.
- Assumes that I have knowledge that I do not have – “You lost me right at the start. I am now simply staying out of politeness.”
- No coherent purpose to the talk – Just a rambling description of unrelated stuff.
- One way traffic – presentations are a conversation and I need questions to keep me awake.
I could go on. See how demanding I am? In fact I am not that demanding compared with some people I know. Most of these things are going on in my subconscious giving me a general feeling of unease and anxiety that distracts me from anything important you may have to say that is buried in all the dross.
Well that is my rant over, back to normal service!
Don’t overstay your welcome
I do not want to stretch your attention past breaking point so I will leave you with one final question.
“What would you feel if I were your boss and I tell you now that “in two weeks time you will have to give a perfect presentation to a highly aggressive and expert audience about an area in which you have only worked in or a couple of months”? In fact the future of the company and hence your job could depend upon what you tell them and if you can convince them.
I am sure that you can think of your own worst case scenario. Maybe because you were searching for advice on presentation skills means that just such a challenge is looming on the horizon. So, how are you feeling right now thinking about it? Spend just a moment or two investigating that particular potential nightmare scenario.
Are you feeling excited, happy, looking forward to the chance to shine or alternatively are you dreading the prospect, feeling anxious, sinking under the weight of the threat? All of these are perfectly valid feelings and emotions, some more unpleasant than others but they are all connected because they are driven by strong internal energy under the influence of adrenalin. Great presenters have learnt how to harness their adrenalin surges and convert the energy it generates into the fuel that drives stellar presentations. The trick in life is to identify what assumptions we have made about ourselves and how this blocks us and then find ways to remove them in order to release our full potential.
Your Future as a Stellar Presenter
In my next post I will investigate how to manage anxiety, how to focus on the process and gain fulfilment at the end of a presentation that is powerful enough to make you want again and again and again.
If you are intrigued about unleashing your full potential as a Stellar Presenter I invite you to join us at my Winning them Over – Power Presentation Masterclass (5th-7th December). You will have a great time with like-minded people discovering your new authentic and powerful presenter.