Heinous Public Speaking Crimes & How to Avoid Them.
There’s a war going on out there. New victims are claimed each day in the conference centres and boardrooms of this nation. It’s time we fought to end this cruel and barbaric practice: the mindnumbingly boring presentation.
I’m not a public speaker. But through my work I attend a lot of presentations. Some have been inspirational and transformative. Others have made the dripping-tap-water-torture seem like a Hawaiian lomi lomi massage. The greatest villains form a rogues gallery repressed in the deepest recesses of my psyche.
So I’m sharing these ideas partly in pursuit of my own sellf-preservation, and in the hope that I can make some small contribution to the liberation of audiences trapped in webs of monotony.
Open with your best stuff – When Francis Ford Coppola was asked how to cut a documentary together he explained that you need to put your best scene first, and then finish with your second best scene. The idea is that the 2 most important moments you have with an audience are when you first engage with them, and how you leave them. Please don’t spend the first few minutes building up to your first point. Just hit me between the eyes with something big, and then offer some explanation. Please avoid the stream of consciousness explanation of your thought process e.g. When I was first asked to talk about (insert topic) my initial reaction was (insert gut reaction).
Don’t apologise – I’m amazed at how many people begin a presentation by apologising for the fact that they had a cold last week, the fact that they are jetlagged, that they’re not a very good public speaker, or they are recovering from grieving over their recently departed pet Madagascar hissing cockroach. Appealing to an audience’s sense of sympathy, or even pity, should be a last ditch strategy reserved for crises like forgetting to bring your cue cards, or realising that you are naked. This sort of approach is akin to the waiter bringing your food to the table and apologising in advance for the food being a bit average.
Animate and enthuse – Often, the most memorable presentations are based more on the manner in which they were delivered, rather than their content. It’s more enjoyable listening to someone who is expressive, uses gestures, and generally appears to be enjoying the process. While a monotonous drawl may add subtle drama to a Western gunslinger monologue, it will do little to endear an audience to you.
Don’t ask for feedback, look for it. – Something that most people learn on the road to adulthood is the ability to project an adapted self, or mask, to the world. Therefore, while your audience may be thinking “oh, for the love of God, please deliver me from this cruel and unusual torture”, they may appear to be diligently offering you their attention. But look a little closer, and you will notice certain giveaways, or “tells”:
Beware the thousand yard stare. They’re not really looking at you, but rather, have their gazed fixed on some abstract point in the infinite distance. Look closer into their eyes and you will notice a wistful, nostalgic haze. Do not stare too long or you may be mesmerised by the deep hypnotic gaze. Some audience members appear to be nodding, but in a repetitive rhythm independent of the cut and thrust of your assertions. Very sorry to break it to you, but what there’re indulging in is the act of ‘self-soothing’ – A rhythmically repetitive physical gesture learnt in early childhood used to attempt to ease an uncomfortable or traumatic situation.
The best way of detecting whether your audience is on the journey with you is if you notice a range of reactions and facial expressions: Sometimes they are looking puzzled. Other times they are laughing uproariously at your deftly inserted witticism. Then they are genuinely touched by an emotional point you have raised.
Find out what’s at stake for your audience, and then deliver it – You are not a burst fire hydrant firing wisdom skywards in the assumption that some of it will hit your audience. Instead, think of yourself as a messenger, sent across hostile lands or treacherous seas to deliver a message that is specific, timely, and will evoke a prescribed reaction.
Theres no way you’re going to know what’s at stake for your audience without asking them. And to avoid tearing a hole in the space-time contuum, or turning your presentation into a focus group, you need to ask them before presenting. There’s a number of ways of doing this: Get some background knowledge from the organiser. Ask if they can put you in touch with some attendees. There’s this cool thing called the internet that can help you find out all sorts of things about an audience prior to meeting them.
Just try to find out how you can be most useful, and play to that.
Don’t go on and on and on and on and on and on – Great communication is about simplifying and distilling an idea to its core, and then sharing it. Think of yourself as the scout who’s been sent on ahead of the army to gather important information, and then report back. They’re not going to want to know that much about your journey: if you slept on a bed of rocks, or had to catch and cook a possum to stave off hunger. All they really want is the key information that will help them progress their journey in the best way.
So think of yourself as the bearer of vital information that needs to be communicated with brevity, clarity and urgency.
If you’ve been allocated an hour by the conference organiser, why not include opportunities for the audience to break into small groups to share their own experiences. Or to take part in group activities to help embed their knowledge. Or just get them to stand up, stretch or run on the spot – get the blood flowing again – and flush out the true experts who’ve schooled themselves in the ancient art of sleeping with their eyes open.
Stock images may not be your friend – I’ve never heard anyone decry a shortage of stock images in a presentation. Most of the time using stock images is the equivalent of cooking with pre-prepared food, or filling out a crab salad with the mysteriously named ‘seafood extender’.
Instead, use images that illustrate your point, or tell your story visually. This may involve a carefully chosen stock image, but may also include images or video content you have created. Ask yourself whether the addition of an image is assisting to communicate your story, or is it sauce to dip your chips into.
Tell a story – If you eavesdrop on a random conversation in a cafe you will notice that most of the time people are communicating by sharing stories. It’s pretty damn rare that you will see them covering off points on a powerpoint presentation. Humans are hardwired to communicate through storytelling. This goes right back to the days when your Great x 100 grandfather Irving told his buddy to take the low road around the rocky outcrop to avoid a feisty wooly mammoth.
The chance to present in front of an audience is a privilege. A group of people are giving you the gift of their time and attention. And you have the opportunity to put something positive out there into the world that can help people. So approach the experience in the spirit of service, and try to deliver the sort of experience that you may enjoy if you were in the audience yourself.
What are the other classic public speaking crimes, and how can they be avoided? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.