You must get them involved

When you speak to a friend or your boss, do you simply talk for 30-minutes without a pause? Do you ask a list of questions and proceed without hearing any answers? Do you read slides to him/her the whole time?

If you answered “no”to these questions, you’re probably normal in that regard. But, would the answer be the same if your audience of one was an audience of 10, 100 or more? Why not?

Involving the audience seems to be a difficult skill for many speakers to learn. That’s probably why it is so refreshing when we see it. Why is it so tough for speakers?

1. It’s how we’re trained. Think about it – almost every form of training for speakers teaches us to present to the audience. Only after the fear is reduced and the skills emerge do we start to train to engage the audience.

2. It’s hard. It does sound easy though, doesn’t it? “Ask questions.” But giving control to an audience member can be scary, and not knowing how to maintain control of the overall session can lead to problems and maybe worse.

How do we overcome those two problems?

Let’s look at how by addressing one of the ways speaking can be broken down, to give us a plan of attack. We’ll start with these three key components:

Know your self
Know your message
Know your audience

In the training environments I discussed, we mostly focus on the “know yourself” aspect of speaking. Understanding basic skills like organization, vocabulary, body language, vocal variety and other basic components allow you to improve your comfort and confidence to stand in front of a group and speak.

You’re never finished with this aspect of learning, but once you understand the basics you can work on more advanced skills while improving these concurrently.

Knowing you message is the next step, and is where many speakers get stuck. After all, it’s important to have accurate data and useful information for your audience, right? Many speakers feel that if they have the right information, the right slides, and the right technique then they’ll be successful. Sometimes they’re right, even if they aren’t as successful as they could be.

The reason you’re never finished here is different than the basic skills. Here, your repertoire will keep expanding as you continue to speak and gain experience. Also, some experiences (and stories) will become outdated and need to be retired from your catalog.

Knowing your audience is the critical key to success as a speaker, and it’s also the key to comfort in interacting with them and creating the best connection. That is, this is how you uncover the best results. It’s about more than demographics, although those can be important too. It’s about experience and expectations. What experience does your audience already have, and what do they reasonably expect to get from attending your session?

You may wonder, “how do I do that?” After all, this may be an audience you’ve never seen before.

First – ask. Start with the meeting organizer to get a baseline expectation and understanding of the size and composition of your audience. Don’t stop there. At the event, but prior to your presentation, talk to attendees and see where they are coming from, and what they expect. Learn a few names and stories so you can connect better with them.

Next – ask from the stage. To get the best connection and interaction, lead the audience with questions. Some rhetorical and some that require some sort of response. If your speech is the Toastmasters 5-7 minute variety, you may not need much interaction. But, if you’re doing a 20 minute session, or a 40-60 minute breakout, you’ll need to interact with the audience in a few times, at least.

Then – callback. As you learn from your audience, you need to callback to those responses later in your presentation. In this way, you strengthen your connection by showing that you heard and understood their response and that their opinion/story/etc. fit right in with what they’re learning from you. (Here’s a previous post on callbacks)

Finally – follow up. Is your job done when the speech is over? Probably not. Be available for follow-ups after the event, and make yourself available via e-mail or through your web page. This not only shows you care about more than the paycheck (or free publicity), but will help you make adjustments for future presentations.

Just like speaking to a friend or your boss, don’t monopolize the conversation in front of any audience. Get them involved early and often. You’ll connect, be memorable, and get called back. They may even clap when you’re done…

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