You’re invited to make a presentation to a group for the purpose of enhancing some aspect of their knowledge or skill. By participating, attendees will receive credits required by their professional trade organization. Sound like an exciting opportunity? I wouldn’t expect folks to be lining up ahead of time to get a front row seat.

But you’ve prepared and agonized over (and over) what you’ll present for days and finally have your act together. As you assume the center of attention, you look out over the 100 or so individuals assembled. You get a sinking feeling. What are the real chances of making a difference with your presentation? “Why can’t all audiences look like the students in ‘Dead Poet’s Society” or the fans at a rock concert, or a football game?”

So what do most individuals do in this situation? Most press on with their prepared agenda. Sure, these presentations turn out to be ‘OK,’ but not the stuff that will go viral on the web. Some, however, do something different that truly makes the session stand out.

They don’t present.

Now, this doesn’t mean they walk off stage, it literally means that they don’t present. But what do these memorable speakers actually DO that separates them from the ‘OK’ crowd?

They engage their audience.

This may seem obvious – you knew this, right? Everyone knows that the best presenters engage the audience. But HOW do they do it? This is a bit more difficult to answer – otherwise we’d all be ready to deliver the next TED talk. The answer is partially redundant to my last point, but worth repeating with a bit more precision:

They appeal to the audience (i.e., people).

If you’ve ever had the experience that one speaker in front of a crowd is speaking directly to YOU, and only YOU, this is an example of appealing to the people. They don’t need a teleprompter. They don’t need a ‘deck’. Their words, behaviors and tone somehow are custom-made for your needs. One brief connection of your eyes with theirs is the sure sign that you’re the only one in the room they’re really talking to.

So what does it take to be so riveting that you literally have people leaning forward in their seats; letting their coffee get cold; actually turning off their phones?

Here’s what psychology tells us about stand out presenters:

  1. They’re great story-tellers.
  2. They evoke emotion and passion.
  3. They’re provocative.
  4. They present with their whole body.
  5. They constantly assess and refine their story based on audience reactions.

My intent is not to produce a formula for great communication. It’s well documented and others are much more qualified than me to present/build these skills. What I do want to point out is one critical, common denominator among great communicators:

They speak from the audience’s perspective.

Research backs up the fact that great presenters are, in fact, great ‘readers’ of others. They anticipate and detect subtle signs that they are ‘getting though’ to their audience. They know what is on the mind of the audience AND how to influence it. They’re imminently prepared, but even more importantly, always ready. This is where psychology enters the scene.

For the most part, written speeches don’t go over nearly as well as planned. They read better than they sound. Prepared speeches make all kinds of assumptions about what the audience will resonate with. Moreover, they are prepared in a medium (text) that is very different from presenting (physically) – and the transition is not typically good.

My Story

Many years ago I taught a class that lasted 3 hours in the evening. So: Here you have a lecturer; presenting to approximately 50, 18-20 year olds; on ‘scintillating’ topics such as strategic talent management and the identification of high potential. How many in the class would you estimate got excited before the lecture? You get the point.

Realizing this, myself, I applied a somewhat unorthodox approach.

I started every class by asking, “Who Cares?”

Literally.

I would tolerate silence much longer than comfortable until someone would utter something. Immediately, I reinforced the catalyzing individual and moved into increasingly focused questions all centered around the basic question, “Why?”. “Why does that matter to you?” “Why might this matter to others?” “Does anyone else see it this way? – Why?” Essentially, I was blasting my way into relevance by being provocative. (Secret: I did say that if no one cared, class would be dismissed and then remind them when the exam was)

My point

By starting from the audiences’ perspective, my intent was to effectively have them ‘lecture’ themselves. When someone hit on a concept that I could relate to a specific practice or technology, I’d bring it forward in a story about something I had experienced or read.

I walked about the room. I modulated my voice from soft to loud, stark to near musical. I even did crazy things like put signs on my back (that related to the last class). I was a ‘moving target’ and I wanted the class to work (and want) to follow me.

Now more than ever

The approach I used over 10 years ago is arguably more relevant than ever. The role of the presenter is rarely to serve as an all-knowing guru – Google pretty much has that under control. The role of the presenter, teacher, preacher, etc. increasingly is less about edification and more about inspiration. This goes for any form of influence, not just presentations, by the way.

Try it yourself: For your next ‘show’, present “from your audience” by relinquishing your love affair with yourself or your expertise and truly asking: “Who Cares?”

It really makes a difference.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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