Did you ever wonder why so many public speakers start their presentation with a joke or funny story. Nope, neither did I. But as one that spent his early career trying to avoid addressing a room full of people, I can tell you it frequently helps, but not always. It has a lot to do with the delivery. I have heard speakers that started with a joke that was received by an attentive, but silent, audience. Not very reassuring if you are the one that told it.
As time passed, I was required to address various groups of people, from subordinates, peers, customers, and management all the way up to vice presidents. As such, I began to learn some tricks through observation. I became aware that there is a proper way to tell a funny story. It should provoke the interest of your audience, and it should also be pertinent to your subject matter. And, you don’t always have to begin with one. It works well if you can interject an anecdote into the speech to lighten things up. This tends to refocus your audience.
Humor, I have found, is the great equalizer. Although I became more comfortable making presentations over time, I never got over being nervous. As such, I most always interjected humor. A chuckle from the audience was a salve for the jitters. That is when I knew we were on the same page.
But it wasn’t just for me. Think of the last time you sat in an audience and prepared to hear someone speak. Let’s assume that you don’t know them personally, which is frequently the case. What exactly are your expectations?. Of course, you hope what you hear will be interesting as well as informative. But first, they have to gain your trust. They have to establish their credentials. First, you have to like them.
One of my early managers once said to me “Do you know that your audience is as nervous as you are?. If you make them feel comfortable, they will listen”‘. And I believe he was right. There is an invisible curtain between you and the audience that you first must raise. It has nothing to do with subject matter and everything to do with chemistry. First you must sell yourself.
As I think back to all the presentations I have attended, in honesty, I can’t remember much of anything that was specifically said. But I do remember people. There were those who had a favorable impact on me and, as such, I would be much more prone to believe and or quote them. There are others that I remember because of the inadequacy of their style. They were painful to watch and more painful to listen to. Everything they said, however valid, was unheard because they failed to make a personal connection.
So, for those of you that find yourself standing behind that podium, staring at a group of faces that are just waiting for you to say something, I offer these tips.
- If possible, before the meeting, introduce yourself and chat with a few people. If, once you begin, you are able to find some of them in the audience, make frequent eye contact and smile. They will feel special and you will tend to feel less alone.
- Make me and you an us.
- Ask for buy in. “Did that ever happen to you”? “Am I right”? “Does that make sense”. Rhetorical questions.
- Use props. Here are a couple of examples:
I once was giving a talk on warehouse security. One of my points was “do not stock small items near doors. To illustrate my point a walked to the side of the room and picked up a garbage disposer that I had brought with me and carried it back to the podium, talking about how easy it would be to steal, even though the warehouse was fully staffed. I then took it back and placed it against the wall, next to a door. While the eyes of the audience followed me back to the podium, by prior arrangement, I had a co worker slightly open the door and slide the disposer out. When I was wrapping up, I again referred to the disposer, and, walking toward it, feigned surprise that it was gone. Point made. Game, set, match.
Prior to a meeting, I purchased three packs of gum. I then stood inside the door and as people arrived I would casually ask one of them if they would like a stick, as I unwrapped one for myself and tossed the wrappers on the floor. This happened to be a public speaking class so I knew most of the participants, and we had no idea what each of us would talk about. We just had to use one visual aid. When it came time for my talk, I told them that I was going to talk about whether seeing someone doing something wrong and not saying anything was a bad as committing the act yourself. Before I had a chance to go any further, several were pointing to the gum wrappers and laughing.
- Champion the pregnant pause. Nothing gets an audiences attention quicker then if you stop talking. It also gives you a moment to compose your thoughts before continuing.
- Do not read them your speech. You will have to talk louder to be heard over the snores.
- Keep your hands out of your pockets. There is usually something in there that will clink or jingle. I once gave a talk with one hand in my pocket, absently fooling with some change. When I was through, my boss approached me and said, “Let me guess. You have forty seven cents in your pocket” Enough said.
- Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. While talking, I once shuffled my notes, quickly losing my place. I panicked. So I said “Bear with me. I’m trying to find something you may be interested in hearing”. The audience laughed and I had bought myself some time. When I had the notes resorted, I held them up and said “Let’s try this one”.
- The audience wants to like you, so you begin on a positive note. The rest is up to you. They will respond in kind.
- Don’t believe the old saw about imagining that the audience is in their underwear as a means of making yourself feel more confident. I tried it and, after picking out the best looking lady in the audience and creating my mental picture, I forgot what I was going to say:)