The Audience Don’ts and Do’s

05.03.2018 |

Episode #8 of the course Conquer fear of public speaking by Dr. Paul Harrison


Have you ever heard the advice, “Focus on the material, not the audience”? I’m going to explain and break down why this and other clichés are bad advice and how engaging your audience can actually propel your talk into orbit!


The Audience Don’ts

Below are a few things you should avoid while presenting.

Ignoring the audience. Focusing on the material rather than the audience is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, if you’re just running through the motions, you won’t be able to connect with the audience. This will keep you in your own head, and to excel, we need to break out of our little bubble and embrace vulnerability. Empathy and awareness are key attributes of a great speaker. They allow you to connect to your audience’s needs, rather than just plowing through what you want to say. They allow you to be present, which distinguishes good public speakers from great ones!

Picturing them naked. Let’s face it, this hackneyed old advice is inappropriate and unhelpful. You have enough to keep in mind when you present, without the complications of imagining nudity. Worse, this is disrespectful to your audience and will make you feel as awkward as they would if they knew you were doing it. Let’s leave this one in the past, where it belongs.

Making assumptions. In any given audience, there is, guaranteed, a percentage of people who have expressions like a bulldog that just swallowed a wasp. Inferring this as a reflection on your performance is pointless. It’s just as likely that they ate something that disagreed with them or have an unfortunate resting face. The key is this: Never make assumptions based on appearance, especially when it comes to an audience. Sure, if they’re laughing and cheering, that’s a great sign, but just because they aren’t, don’t feel like you’re sinking. They’re probably just concentrating, tired, or at worst, worrying about something else. Don’t let it hinder your performance.

Focusing on the negative. Equally, even in the unlikely event that you get sour faces (actual hecklers are very rare, as social pressure tends to make people hide their negative reactions), don’t let it sweat you. For every person giving the stink-eye, there’s likely at least another who is enjoying what you say. Focus on those positive people, and give your speech to them for now. You don’t need to worry about winning over crowds at this stage, just getting past the nerves and giving the best talk you possibly can!


The Audience Do’s

There are a few things that are highly recommended for all presenters. Below are the most common.

Narrative. People respond most strongly to stories. If you can use narrative as a tool to get your point across, then you’ll experience a huge uptake in audience connection. A good story is also easier to remember than listing off information, as it engages your mind and gets you involved in the act of telling, rather than focusing on your performance.

Inclusion. There’s another reason to engage the audience: They can make your life easier! Consider including them in the talk by asking opening questions, getting them to raise hands to strategically chosen questions, or engaging in minor dialogue. You’ll be surprised how effectively this melts the tension of most rooms. It relaxes the audience and takes the focus off you, making your presentation more like a conversation and therefore, less stressful!

Starting small. It helps if you can work your way up from smaller to bigger audiences. This won’t always be possible, but you can pre-empt this by using rehearsals as described in one of the previous lessons and practice speaking up in classes and meetings. These small platforms are a good way to build your performance confidence and try out the techniques suggested here.

Don’t miss the next lesson, where I’ll take you through the pre-presenting routine I’ve used to prep for the History Channel and Sky News!


Recommended video

The Speech That Made Obama President: Watch how the former US President hooks in the crowd with a strong opening, then takes them on a narrative journey, leading to an electrifying finale. This analysis of Obama’s early keynote speech at the DNC reveals the anatomy of a great public speaker.

By the way, one commentator said Obama was born with that ability. False! Obama may have been naturally charismatic, but he would have needed to train and hone his public speaking skills like everyone else!


Recommended book

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo


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