Speaking is a Team Sport: 3 Ways to be Responsive to Your Audience
Most speakers approach their presentation as if they were the star actors in a theater play. They decide on the content, rehearse, and then deliver their impeccably prepared speech.
Giving a presentation however is different from playing Hamlet. When watching a play, or a dance show, the audience wants to be entertained and emotionally engaged. When attending a presentation, the audience expects to hear a relevant message and bring home something of value. They will evaluate the speaker based on whether he or she can convey information that they can understand, digest, remember, and utilize.
If the speaker is also a good entertainer and is well groomed and well prepared, this will make it easier for them to pay attention and enjoy the presentation, but this is by no means sufficient for the presentation to be powerful.
In order to be successful, speakers need to take on a perspective that is intensely audience focused. Rehearsing your speech and being fully prepared is important, but going along with the flow – “playing” together with the audience and having the flexibility to adjust, fine tune and mould your presentation to the audience’s needs and reaction is just as important. This is why professional speakers need to learn to see themselves as playing in team with the audience, rather than delivering a solo performance.
So how can you do this in practice? There are three stages to build a connection with your audience.
#1: Research your audience
No matter how skilled, how prepared, how experienced you are, you need to make sure that your presentation is designed specifically for your audience. Although your core message might be the same from one presentation to the next, the style, tone, and manner of delivery should be different according to the audience’s DNA.
First of all, you should do due diligence on your audience. This may mean calling the person who hired you and ask them who the attendees are likely to be, what is their background, their interests, what they hope to get out of the presentation. You should not only be aware of gross differences, such as whether you are talking to a corporate or consumer audience, and which industry (technology, finance, services, products) your audience belongs to, but also more subtle variations, such as the seniority of your audience (are they graduates? Are they mid management? Are they senior executives?) and their experience with the topic you are presenting.
Tailor Your Speech to the Audience
Then you should use this information to tailor your presentation in two ways:
You need to be understood by your audience. You need to speak a language they can relate to. It is very different to present a financial topic to an audience of bankers than it is to an audience of techie gurus. Or an IT topic to an audience of bankers rather than an audience of techies. Your language needs to be modified accordingly.
Within your topic of expertise, you need to fine tune the presentation to the audience’s level of expertise, knowledge and particular issues. It is very different to talk about time management and work life balance to an audience of new hires right out of college or to an audience of executives. It is different to talk about the challenges of leadership to a mixed audience or to an audience of just men, or just women.
#2: Connect with your audience before your presentation
When you are giving a speech, always make sure you arrive early and take the time to talk to some of the attendees. Ask them what they would like to get out of your presentation, what their concerns are, what they need to learn the most.
Then when you start your presentation, especially if it is a small audience, you can weave in some of the comments and questions that you have been asked at the onset. This makes the presentation far more personal and gives the audience the impression that you really are there to address their particular concerns, rather than just deliver a prepared speech. You need to be on the lookout for your audience’s attention, focus, and interest.
#3: Keep engaged with your audience during your speech
Throughout your presentation, you need to stay tuned in at all times with your audience and connect with them, fine tuning your speech to their reactions and responses.
A few practical ways to do this:
- Encourage people to ask questions.
This will make the flow of the presentation more personal and will keep the audience engaged.
- Prepare questions to ask the audience.
They will feel you are speaking directly to and for them.
- Weave in questions from the audience
Incorporate material from conversations with the attendees you had before starting.
- Acknowledge understanding.
When they seem particularly interested in what you are saying, you can say something like: “I see this topic really rings a bell” – they will naturally comment on it.
- Look at audience members to see whether they are understanding you and following you.
Cues to look for are their posture (are they sitting upright, slightly leaning towards you? This means they are fully engaged. Are they slouching back, looking around, checking their phones? You know what this means..), whether they are nodding their heads, whether they are taking notes. If they don’t seem to be engaged, acknowledge this and ask them whether you are being clear or if you need to bring in an example or clarify.
Does being so responsive to the audience mean I can skip preparation?
Your question at this point might be: “Does this mean I can go light on preparing my material?” No, actually it’s quite the opposite!
You should prepare and rehearse your speech in advance. You should know your material inside out, know it so well that you can have the flexibility to weave in new things. Just like when playing a sport, or dancing, or practicing martial arts, it is when you really know your moves, when you have mastered them to a point where they are natural to you, that you can be the most flexible, open to improvisation, and engaged in the moment.