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It's Not a Presentation, It's a Conversation

We were at a beautiful resort in the Southwest U.S. The audience was in a great mood. They were leaders who had achieved awesome results last year and were being treated well with golf and spa treatments in a sunny location.  What's not to like?

Now there was some anticipation as they waited for the CEO to speak. 

People Were Super Engaged

I was sitting at the back of a large hall, filled with a dazzling stage, bright lights and music. I was hired to observe and give feedback. The CEO started to speak. He was smiling, charming and spontaneous. He used the names of people in the crowd and joked with them.  People were laughing and super engaged.

Then, he cleared his throat, "Ahem" and said, "OK, let's get started."  He looked down at his speech. Up came the Powerpoint slides. He began to read the words from the page. It almost seemed like the first time he had read those words.

Up Came The Smartphones

I watched as people who a moment before were laughing and watching their leader, suddenly turned to their smartphones. They had something better to do. Others crossed their arms on their chests and sat back for a long haul. 

This happens everywhere. You've probably seen it personally. This is not a criticism of the CEO, it's fact of life. We've all been on the delivery side, too: spewing information at people with little regard for their needs or interest.

Presentation Mode

This is not good for you or your audience. It makes us nervous because we move from having a conversation to PRESENTATION MODE. Now I'm giving a speech, we say to ourselves--and to our audience. (I'm not saying don't give presentations, I'm saying don't live in presentation mode.)

In presentation mode, we think people are judging us: our knowledge, our appearance, our eloquence. What they really want is to interact with you. Have a conversation with a normal human being--an authentic person. 

The answer is to start thinking about your meetings and talks as conversations. A conversation will also make you feel more confident. When you put it through that lens, you'll raise your awareness and see it from your audience's point of view.

Have a Conversation

Here are a few public speaking tips to help you next time you face an audience and want to create a conversation:

* Start with a story: Stories, especially your own, are the most powerful tool you have to engage people, opening their hearts and minds to your message.

* Ask Them Questions: When you ask questions, you have my attention. I have to think about whether you were addressing me personally; whether I know the answer; and whether I should consider answering. You've made me part of the conversation.

* Create bullet points: You can write out your entire presentation as a script if it makes you think more clearly and feel more comfortable. But for your talk I recommend you boil it all down to bullet points. You may have the fear that you'll forget some detail. That doesn't matter. You know this stuff and when you're having a conversation, it doesn't have to be perfect. It has to be real.

* Rehearse in conversation with people: Take your bullet points, hopefully written on a single page or index cards, and talk them through with your team or friends. Think about sitting around a meal and explaining these ideas. You're looking for engagement and interaction. You're just having a conversation.

Bonus Tip: Have someone video record you on your phone, standing up presenting vs. sitting and talking. Then consider: if you were in the audience, which one would rather hear?

Be easy on yourself. Like any skill, it takes time and deliberate practice to develop expertise.

Here's to having fewer presentations in the world, and more conversations. Enjoy your next talk.


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What about you?  How do you engage your audiences?

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Photo Credit: Richard Branson by Aleksandr Anreiko via Creative Commons License