How many times have you attended a speech and decided whether the speaker was worth listening to within the first few minutes of their pitch? Often they hadn’t even gotten deep enough into their presentation to present metrics worth judging but you’d already made your decision. The election season we all just sat through was an excellent example of this. Regardless of which side voters were on, candidates were often chosen with little regard for the facts or issues. And often no amount of facts or figures could change their minds. After all, you can’t logically talk people out of something they didn’t logically talk themselves into.
So if you’re sitting in the auditorium at a seminar and your first impression is that the person speaking isn’t worth listening to, what’s the chance that you’ll actually pay attention? First impressions are critical to getting you to appreciate what’s being said; regardless of the quality and veracity of the information you’re hearing.
If you’re following me so far, the obvious question for doing a great presentation becomes, “So how do I make a powerful first impression?”
From all the years I’ve spent watching and studying speakers, I’ve narrowed the requirements down to two simple attributes.
First, the most important thing a speaker can do to make their audience comfortable is to be comfortable themselves. After all, no one wants to sit and watch a presenter who’s squirming on the stage. Worrying about a speaker is about the worst feeling an audience member can have besides out-and-out hating the person up on the platform.
Talking about being comfortable on stage is easy. But actually learning to be comfortable is a whole lot harder. Common knowledge in the speaking business says that the best way for a speaker to be comfortable is to know their information cold. The thought is that if you know what you’re talking about, there’s no reason to be nervous.
But I believe that knowing your material backwards and forwards is simply the cost of entry. You can’t sit at a poker table if you don’t ante up, and you can’t get up in front of people if you don’t know your material. Knowledge and expertise are critical but they’re table stakes.
You know the old saw about the best way to get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice, man, practice!” It’s the same with speaking in public. The best way to get good at it is to speak in public. A lot.
Sure, you can read a book on presentations to absorb best practices (I’ve read them all, by the way. The best of the bunch is I Can See You Naked by Ron Hoff). But reading a book on speaking in public is about as effective as reading a book on swimming. You can read the book and pass the test, but when you get thrown out of the boat you still won’t know how to swim. And someone can even toss you the book, but unless it’s made of Styrofoam, that book ain’t gonna help you keep your head above water.
The second way to make your audience comfortable is to establish, right up front, the value proposition of your talk (more commonly described as “what’s in it for me?”). The sooner the audience realizes that your talk is going to be valuable to them, the sooner they’ll be on your side. How do you do this? Take a tip from Sixty Minutes commentator Andy Rooney. Remember how he used to start his whiney diatribes? Rooney would raise his owlish eyebrows and screech, “You ever notice…” and then he’d be off on his rant about ill-fitting toupees, or airline food, or speaking English in France, or whatever. But by starting with that ubiquitous question “You ever notice…” he got us all to agree, “Yes, I have noticed that, Andy, tell me more.” Rooney was the master at letting us know that the bit he was about to do was going to be about us. And we’d pay attention.
A good speaker can be entertaining, enlightening or educational. A great speaker can be all three. The best speakers are all three “E”s AND make you think they’re talking directly to you.