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Tag Archives: Connecting With Audience

Make Your Audience Feel Something

I was stuck in a meeting from hell today. Boring agenda. Listless participants. Too many tangents. If that weren’t enough, the meeting leader was not on his game and had introduced the first agenda item and then the second without taking time for introductions. One participant raised her hand and asked, “I know we’re half-way through this meeting, but I would really like to know who’s here. Could we go around the room and introduce ourselves?” Everyone agreed so we stopped the meeting for introductions. These too, were mind-numbingly dull until one guy shared a fun fact about himself.

After giving us his name, rank and serial number, he happened to mention that he just returned home from his honeymoon. At that point a few heads turned his way. The meeting leader made an off-hand comment about vows of marriage being a really big step in a person’s life, to which the guy replied, “True, but when you strike oil, you stop drilling.”

Everyone in the room perked up and looked at him directly, and what we saw was a smile on his face that went from one ear to the other. He was beaming. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to assume that the women started smiling back at him because it is refreshing to hear a guy publicly express loving thoughts about his wife, even if he did compare her to an oil gusher. I suppose the men in the room – and I’m taking a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess here – started smiling because the speaker’s facial expression may have conjured up images of, well, a great honeymoon.

From that moment on the meeting changed. There was energy and bonding and whoever else was left to introduce themselves stepped up their game. In scientific terms, the speaker’s sharing of personal information and expression of genuine emotion opened up a neural pathway in our brains that then let in more information and encouraged us to participate.

Sharing emotion may feel risky, but it can help you make a much better connection with your audience.

– Barbara

Swim to the Deep End!

Thirty minutes into a challenging indoor cycling class when I was “seeing Elvis,” the instructor said, “If you have anything left in the tank, turn the tension up one more time.”  At that moment I had an epiphany:  the human body is capable of much more than the mind allows.  Once we push past the mental barrier that yells, “I can’t! It’s too hard!,” we find that we are stronger, smarter, and open to new possibilities.   Medal-winning athletes know this, and so do successful speakers.

When you are about to stand up and speak, what’s going through your mind?  Odds are it’s something like, “Let me just get through this without embarrassment,” or “Please don’t let me trip on the electrical cord.”  Chances are that you are not thinking, “I can’t wait to take a risk and really put myself out there.”

This blog post is an invitation to let your body move past the limits that your mind imposes.  If you want to really impress your audience and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste, consider incorporating one of these physical techniques:

  1. Change your volume.  If you are naturally on the church mouse end of the continuum, try speaking much louder.  If your style is closer to the carnival barker, try softening your voice.  Notice what it does to the rest of your delivery.
  2. Sing loudly right before you present.  You will be more energized and relaxed when you begin your presentation.
  3. Make a sound effect where you would normally use an adjective.  Go from bland to “Now that got my attention!”
  4. Step away from the lectern.  It’s a crutch.  Try speaking in the “magic circle” – that space front and center of the room.  Your audience will thank you.
  5. Break the wall.  Most speakers deliver their presentation at a “professional” distance from their audience.  Try moving closer into the personal space for an important point and then move back.

Break the mental barrier that keeps us stuck in the safe-and-average shallow end and move into the risky-and-fabulous deep end of the pool!  Your body should be in the lead role, not your mind.

– Barbara

Larry Crowne and Public Speaking

Having taught undergrads at the college level, I believe that gives me license to critique the movie Larry Crowne.  Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are back together again, but in no way do they deserve your hard-earned money.  I went because I wanted to see what Hollywood would do to the art and craft of public speaking.

Julia Roberts plays a cynical, disaffected community college professor who reluctantly teaches Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks.  In every classroom scene she conveys a palpable loathing for her students, except at the end, of course, when she has been transformed by the “life is good” energy of her star student Larry Crowne, played by Tom Hanks.  Did she have to hate her job?  Would the movie be less compelling if she jumped out of bed every morning with the anticipation of shaping young minds and developing the talents of her students?  Oh, wait, I get it:  Larry Crowne is competing with Bad Teacher for box office revenues.  But I digress.

Do not see this movie.  I think Rex Reed said it best in his review:  “In an endurance test of 99 minutes that feels more like running a marathon on the Equator, nothing ever happens in this movie. There is no conflict. The characters are dead on arrival. Somebody must be held accountable for clunky, unspeakable dialogue like ‘I was worked up and under the influence of the demon rum.’ I mean, who talks like that outside the pages of paperbacks for hyper-thyroidal teens sold in airport departure lounges?”  Wow. Harsh.

On the bright side, the movie did get a couple of things right about public speaking.  First, Mrs. Tainot (Julia) suggests to her students  that they find three focal points in the room – one on the left, one on the right and one in the center of the room.  And when you have an important point to make, look directly at the center point for full effect.  Correct. One point for Hollywood.

The second thing they got right was how to deal with nerves.  Toward the end of the movie when Professor Tainot is preparing her students for the final speech, she has them stand up and move their bodies in all sorts of ways while reciting tongue twisters loudly.  This is a great way to diminish nervous tension and it was a real plus in an otherwise wasted two hours of my life.

Sorry Tom and Julia – I love your work, just not in this particular instance.  But Rita Wilson?  Your cameo as the mortgage loan officer stole the show.

– Barbara

What Good Are Your Words if We Can’t Understand You?

Did your mother ever say to you, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? That may be true if you are trying to maintain harmony in your household, but it’s bad advice for aspiring public speakers. How you say the words is just as important as the words you choose. Take for example the important skill of articulation. When you combine poor enunciation with a fast, nervous pace, it is easy to be misunderstood, and possibly even insulting to others.

The other day I was working out to an exercise DVD with my head down, shuffling side to side, not looking at the TV when the instructor yelled “Congressman Brown, Congressman Brown!” I stopped in my tracks and stood up. What?! Surely he didn’t just say that. I rewound the clip and this time I watched while I listened and it turns out that the words were “cover some ground, cover some ground.” OK, that made more sense.

The best way to improve your articulation skills is to speak into a tape recorder and listen back to it. Better yet, have someone else listen to it and tell you what they heard. It’s a better technique than videotaping because the only cue a listener has to understand you is your verbal delivery.

Do you want to hear a great example of verbal articulation? Listen to a clip of Anna Deveare Smith. She’s a master.

– Barbara

Unplug Before You Present!

I attended a keynote presentation last week at an international conference of 3,000 or so executives. I arrived at the ballroom early to get a good seat for the kickoff event because I wanted to gather a lot of new ideas from the keynote speaker who was a nationally known expert in his field. I was the ideal audience member: my interest and expectations were high, I had pen and paper in hand, and a look of anticipation on my face.

Imagine my disappointment when ten minutes into an awkward introduction, the speaker’s Skype alert pops onto the screen. In case you don’t have a Skype alert, see the image above, except that there is no blackout of the person’s name.

Anyway! When this otherwise small and inconspicuous alert pops up on your desktop back at the office, it’s a helpful tool at best, and at worst, it’s a minor distraction. But when the message is magnified on a 20×30-foot I-Max screen, it’s a huge distraction. The speaker didn’t notice it because to his credit, his attention was focused on the audience.

Luckily, there was nothing too personal or potentially damaging during the 1-hour presentation, but it was very distracting. I kept hoping someone really famous would go online, like Hillary Clinton or Chris Rock. I could hear several audience members commenting on how unfortunate it was that the speaker forgot to turn off his alerts and how clueless he seemed to be about the whole thing. Those murmurs turned to laughter at each consecutive pop-up. Needless to say, it was harder to stay focused on the content of the presentation because we all just had to read every alert. After all, inquiring minds want to know.

Before your next big presentation, turn off all your alerts, sounds, beeps, and any other potentially damaging or distracting information. And speaking from experience, this goes for your desktop wallpaper. Need I say more?

– Barbara

“American Idol” versus “The Voice”

My kids have already put “The Voice” on DVR pre-record mode. They are hooked and I may be getting there too.  American Idol never did a thing for me.  So what is going on?

Despite the incredibly tacky design and fight-ring theme, the blind auditions, star studded feedback (they vote with their hands, not their feet!) and team building competition makes for compelling intrigue. I love the blind audition element because it demonstrates how affected we all are by how people look.  We are thinking, “Wow, this is one crazy looking woman!” or “This guy looks like a 12 year old white kid from the Midwest but he sure sounds like a mature black R&B star!” But, since the celebrity judges can’t see the singers, they have to listen with their ears and hearts. And who doesn’t love the look of surprise, delight, and amazement when the stars slam their buzzer, swivel their (tacky!) chairs around and get to see the singer they just voted for! It’s so satisfying to watch their curiosity get piqued. It’s awesome. And fair.

In his book BLINK , Malcolm Gladwell describes the process that orchestras throughout the world faced in the mid 20th century, as auditioners began to fight the bias of conductors for white male players.  Screens were being used to avoid potential nepotism. Since “naturally” some instruments are “male” and should be played only by a man, judges were stunned when faced with a petite woman “blowing the house” out of her “male” trombone instrument. There was a lot of pushback.  Nonetheless since orchestras began using screens, “the number of women in the top US orchestras has increased five-fold.”  We listen with our eyes, whether we want to admit it or not.

For speakers this underscores the importance of recognizing how critical our physical movement and presence is to our audience. For singers on The Voice, it means (at least in the first round) freedom.

-Charlotte

What Should You Do With Your Hands?

Charlotte and I facilitated a Speaker Bootcamp this week for a great company whose employees were ready and willing to learn.  When we reached the section on hand gestures, one participant asked, “Does a speaker have to use hand gestures?”  Our answer:  Only on the days of the week that end in Y.

If you want to connect with and leave a lasting impression on your audience, gestures are one leg of a three-legged stool. Without them, the impact of your words and your voice will be diminished.   Great speakers communicate visually as well as verbally.

When we asked the participant to elaborate on her question, she explained that she always felt awkward using her hands and therefore felt that her gestures detracted from her presentation.  She is not alone.  And for that reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to share the coaching we provided during the workshop:

  1.  Find a comfortable base position for your hands near your belt line.  This is the ideal spot for resting hands because it is neither too close to your chest (which can signal fear) nor too close to your, well, crotch, which can signal defensiveness.
  2. While in the base position, try not to grip your hands too tightly. White knuckles are a dead giveaway for nervousness.
  3. Visualize the gesturing “box” which is just outside and above your shoulders and no lower than your hips.  Keep your gestures in this box when you are standing up to speak.
  4. If you are sitting – for example, as a member of a panel presentation – don’t rest your elbows on the table while you gesture.  Sit tall in your chair with your forearms off the table when you are speaking.  When you are waiting your turn to speak, it is fine to rest your arms, but be mindful of your posture so you don’t slouch.
  5. Don’t bounce your hands when gesturing.  Your goal is to enhance your words, not detract from them.  Bouncing hands only worked for Mussolini.

Finally, keep one important thing in mind:  your energy has to go somewhere.  Whether it’s nervous energy or positive energy, using your hands effectively will channel that energy to the right place. Otherwise, it’s going to ooze out in your stance and you will rock and roll in your feet, hips and knees.  Your audience will wonder if you need to use the restroom.

So, yes, Virginia, always use your hands when you speak.

– Barbara