My first foray into public speaking was painful to say the least. I was so sure that I was going to fall flat on my face without notes that I did what many people do – I wrote something compelling, and I read it to my audience. What I quickly realized was that this is a recipe for disaster; if they wanted to read what I wrote, they would have done that. When you have something worthwhile to say, then say it, don’t read it.
What’s worse is that I was being asked to speak about topics that I was passionate about, and I wanted to pass this on to my audience. What I ended up doing instead was connecting my message to a boring (perhaps miserable) experience, and I accomplished precisely the opposite of what I set out to do. I was driving my audience away when I was hoping to win their hearts and minds.
In addition to the blank stares and nodding heads, the way that folks avoided me afterward was telling. There was no reason for them to engage my topic at a deeper level because the way that I presented it wasn’t engaging at all. The little feedback that I did receive from a few brave and honest souls was negative. I knew that something had to change, but I was comfortable reading what I wrote. The thought of having to move outside of my comfort zone was too much for me to bear, so I continued for a while with my old methods of preparation, and the results were the same every time.
I was driving my audience away when I was hoping to win their hearts and minds.
I started to wonder what it was that other, engaging, speakers were doing to connect with their audiences, and so I started to study them – TED Talk speakers, books, speeches on YouTube and any other source I could find. I parked my “teacher” hat and became a student. This was a long, difficult process, but it was worth every minute.
Here’s what I discovered from the experts:
- They always start strong: The best presenters put a lot of thought into how they engage their listeners from the very beginning. It is not okay to begin with, a litany of dry and boring facts. You may begin with a single, startling fact that will grab the audience’s attention – then, build on that. Bold assertions that make folks stop and think are also great. Finally, a good story is always a great way to open.
- They are clear about the problem and solution: Keep in mind that people don’t typically offer their precious time to hear about problems. They want solutions. With this in mind, the audience should have no trouble discerning the problem that you are addressing, and by the end of your time with them, they should be crystal clear about the solution.
- They aren’t content with offering a solution; they always offer a call-to-action: Believe it or not, most people will hear a solution to a problem, process it and then “sit on it” if they aren’t clearly challenged to do something about it. A clear call-to-action is imperative if you want to change hearts and minds (and if you don’t want to change hearts and minds, then why are you speaking in the first place?).
- They speak from the heart, not from note cards or PowerPoint slides: This is probably the most important secret of compelling speakers. They know their material inside and out, but they make their presentations a conversation with the audience, not a lecture. Think about the good conversations you have with friends or colleagues – they are full of stories and honesty. A little vulnerability goes a long way, too. Make eye contact, be genuine and connect with your audience. If you do this, you have won the hearts of your listeners, and you will be able to effect change.
- They follow the StoryGuide narrative arc: Honestly, this isn’t something I “discovered” right away – it was some time before I realized that the best presenters were, without fail, following the timeless principle of DEPARTURE | INITIATION | RETURN in their presentations and story-telling. It just works, and that’s why you should use this formula as well!
With these tools in hand, I was equipped with a new approach to public speaking that was transformative, to say the least. While it took a little practice to master these skills (I’m actually always working to improve my use of them), it wasn’t long before something magical happened. People began to demonstrate their appreciation for my message and key points by seeking me out afterward to engage in conversation, to share how what I said impacted them and energized them about the topic.
Did you catch that last item? When folks are energized by what you have to say, you have successfully transferred your excitement to them in a profound way. It is certainly possible to change the hearts and minds of your audience, but this won’t ever happen if you decide to lecture them instead of engaging them in a meaningful way.