In my last article, I pointed to the paradox that a confident speaker is interested only in the audience’s good experience, yet the speaker’s ability to deliver a good-feeling experience springs from interest in his or her own inner good feeling. The fastest way I know to feel good inside is to be kind and caring of others. The speaker, then, needs to care so much about her own experience that she is willing to care solely about the audience’s experience! When she does that, she fulfills her own need to feel good, and is then in a position to deliver a good experience to the audience.
An attitude of caring outward (instead of self-concern inward) was what enabled me to move from fear to confident presenting. Let’s put that attitude into practical terms. What does it mean, in practice, to care about your audience? It means that everything you do, both before and during your presentation, is done with your listeners’, not your own, needs in mind.
What do they need from you? In broad terms, they need you to show them that you are in confident command of yourself. When you give listeners that, you enable them to relax, to open their minds and hearts and be comfortable with you. When you show confidence, you allow your listeners to have confidence in you.
Getting down to details, your audience has physical, intellectual and emotional needs that are your responsibility, as the speaker, to fill. Those needs could be the subject of many articles, but here are three basics.
- In a physical sense, they need to be able to understand your words. Few people are able to make an accurate assessment of their own diction, so seek an unbiased opinion. I’ve heard people with lazy, mushy diction who thought they were speaking with perfect clarity. Clear diction comes from crisp consonants and distinguishable syllables, which, in turn, come from energetic use of the lip and tongue muscles. If you’re not used to doing that, it will feel nothing short of weird when you try it. In fact, it will feel wrong! Nevertheless, persevere. If you care about your audience’s experience, you will make the effort to fill their need.
- Intellectually, they need only a few main points. They won’t remember more than three, anyway. And they need them presented as narrative rather than as data. Data is boring, but stories act like glue, sticking your ideas in the audience’s mind. Look for ways to present your ideas as stories, and save the dry data for a handout. Keep your stories short and to the point. Every story has lots of details, but does the audience need to know every participant’s name? If details are not necessary to the point of the story, leave them out.
- Emotionally, we all need to feel we belong. If a caring attitude toward your listeners holds full sway in your heart, it manifests in ways that fill that need. Far from fearing them, you make everyone in the audience know that you value and appreciate them. You smile at them. (So vital!) You don’t see them as a solid group, a faceless blob, but as individuals, and you look directly in the eyes of individual listeners. I once asked an audience member if it made her uncomfortable when I looked at her for several seconds while speaking. She said, “No! It makes me feel important.”
Caring about your audience means you behave in ways that directly enhance your listeners’ experience. It also makes you a more interesting speaker. In the introduction to his book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Self-consciousness is the enemy of ‘interestingness’.” He wasn’t talking about public speaking, but we can take a lesson from his words. In a presentation, the more interested we are in the audience, the less conscious we are of ourselves, and the more interesting we are when we speak.