A presentation has the greatest impact when audience members feel as if the speaker is talking directly to them personally. Yet it’s so easy to slip into seeing the people in an audience only in terms of their position in a society or their role in an organization. This kind of de-personalizing is counter-productive for both the speaker and the listener. The listener feels unacknowledged, and the speaker misses an opportunity to make a human-to-human connection with listeners.
We behave toward one another according to how we perceive one another. Say your job requires you to give a monthly report to the Board of Directors of your organization. If you see them only as positions above you in the hierarchy, your perception will be coloured – need I say, “darkened” – by the realization that their positions are more powerful than yours. Maybe they have the power to fire you. You will probably feel very threatened and go through agony every month as your report deadline approaches. When you give your presentation, your manner is emotionally distant and lacking in energy. You feel terrified and your Board members feel unengaged. Neither of you can have a positive experience under those circumstances.
The person beneath the role
Have you ever watched a TV program called “Undercover Boss”? It’s a “reality” show where the head of an organization works in disguise as a trainee at various jobs in their company. It provides a look at what goes on behind the scenes of big organizations like a restaurant chain or an international courier service. Another aspect of the show that I find interesting is how people in top executive positions reveal themselves to be people just like all the rest of us. They might be clumsy or get confused, and they have emotional challenges, just like everybody else. Yes, I know, this is television, and the authenticity of all of it is suspect. Nevertheless, these people are not experienced actors, and I can’t imagine that all of it is faked. What it shows me is that a CEO is a person, not a position.
Think of Queen Victoria. In Great Britain, there is no rung higher on the ladder of hierarchy than the queen. Because of her position, certain modes of behaviour and speech are required in her presence. That’s how the game of human society is played. Yet here was a woman who was so devastated by the death of her husband that she withdrew from her public duties as monarch and lived almost as a recluse to the end of her days. Under the role of queen, she was a person with feelings. Even a queen needs love as much as you or I.
Narrow the gap
If your attitude toward the people in your audience is de-personalized, and you see them only as bodies or positions or roles in the hierarchy, you increase your own distress and decrease your ability to develop a sense of relationship with them. But if you focus on the fact that your listeners are human beings just like you, the gap between you narrows. You approach them as neither inferior nor superior, but as equal human beings. You think in terms of “us”, instead of “me versus them”. When you give that report to the Board, you are giving value by fulfilling their need for information. You are partnering with those people for the good of the organization.
Appreciate the heart
This doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to become “buddy-buddy” with your CEO. The game is played according to certain rules, after all, and we are wise to observe them. It does mean, however, that every human being has a heart, and that heart needs acknowledgement, acceptance and appreciation as much as any other. When you conduct yourself with confidence and self-value, when you smile and make eye contact, when you engage by asking questions and listen intently to the answers, you fulfil your listeners’ need for connection. You make them feel you are talking directly to them, person to person, human being to human being.