As Long As You Believe It

AP Photo by Aaron Harris
Over the years I’ve attended a lot of conferences and conducted a lot of attendees’ reviews. A lot of factors differentiate good speakers from bad ones, but one of the top ones, which to me shouldn’t be that much of a factor, is a mysterious combination of energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence that might be called presence. It conveys to the audience:

  • That the speaker knows what she’s talking about.
  • That the speaker has something very important or very interesting to say.
  • That the speaker cares about what she’s talking about.
  • That you should care about what she’s talking about.
  • That the speaker is paying attention to, and cares about, you.

You can try to fake some of these things, but the audience will see right through you. I’ve seen very slick, highly paid people speak, but behind the theatrics there’s a deadness in the eyes that says “I don’t really care” that only really inattentive audience members would miss. I’ve seen speakers try to mask ill-preparedness or nervousness with false bravado, but that “caught in the headlights” look in their eyes is a dead giveaway. You either have presence, or you don’t.

There is much to say for preparation and practice as a means of overcoming lack of self-confidence. When you simply read your speech, no matter how brilliantly composed, your audience will conclude you aren’t prepared — and be annoyed that you didn’t just send them the speech so they could read it themselves.

Proper sleep and a modest shot of caffeine can ensure you have lots of energy. But nothing can make you care about the subject if you don’t. To really care, both about what you’re talking about and about your audience, you have to have something really novel, fascinating and/or important to say, to convey to or persuade your audience.

You have to have skin in the game — your success or failure at conveying your message or persuading your audience has to mean something to you and to them. What distinguishes a presentation most from a written report is that with a presentation you know immediately when it’s over whether it’s succeeded. The difference between an audience riveted and animated by what you’re saying, and polite applause at the conclusion of your presentation, is all the difference in the world.

We all want attention and appreciation more than anything else from our fellow human beings. The fact that presentations, like stand-up routines, give us the opportunity to get both, or to miss the opportunity and get neither, is what makes the stakes so high, and what makes so many people nervous about public speaking. Sometimes they try to mask that nervousness with an appearance of being indifferent or nonchalant. Big mistake — that will come across as either arrogance or disengagement, or as what it really is, a sign of nervousness and hence ill-preparedness.

There’s another self-destructive impulse of a lot of speakers not to spend a lot of time going over and over their material until it’s polished and until they know it cold. There are a number of possible explanations for this surprisingly common quirk:

  • They find the material kind of boring, so they don’t really want to spend too much time on it in advance. So they convince themselves they’re too busy to prepare thoroughly.
  • They are afraid if they over-rehearse, they’ll come across as wooden and mechanical.
  • The whole point of all the bullet points on their slides is to remind them what to say, so they don’t have to prepare.
  • If the presentation bombs, they have an excuse.

Whatever the cause, under-preparing is a bad habit, and it’s a bit of an insult to the audience. Although I confess I’m still lost without my notes, I no longer use bullet-point slides and I am getting better at this, because it really pays off. The best speakers have only pictures and graphics on their slides, and work without notes.

I’m still a mediocre speaker, and it’s taken me years to reach that level. I’ve learned from experience that there are some things you can do to come across as better than you really are:

  • If the audience is small enough, and likely to care about the topic (not just there because the company paid for the jaunt), lay out some useful, interesting, new (to them — you need to know your audience) information up front, throw out some questions or intractable problems that the audience has likely been grappling with, and draw them into a conversation. The audience likely has more useful information to share with each other than you have to give them, so facilitate them to do so. Facilitation is a different skill set from speaking, and requires a deft touch, but it can be a more effective, more valuable to the audience, and easier to do. But it doesn’t work in large groups or when the audience is disengaged.
  • Give the audience more than what you cover in your presentation. If you know the size of the audience, hard-copy handouts of well-written in-depth articles, and useful graphics, give the audience something to take away in addition to what you’ve told them. At the very least, give them an annotated reading list and/or annotated links to online articles for further reading on the subject.
  • Start with a story from your personal experience. Tell it using fable or other proven story structure. Make sure it’s interesting and has a powerful moral. Practice it on others (to ensure they think it’s interesting) and rehearse it so you don’t need notes to tell it.
  • Tell people what to do about what you’ve told them. This may seem condescending or patronizing, but it often works, even with sophisticated audiences. If they’ve been paying attention, they have probably already formulated an action plan in their own mind, and if your short ‘what to do’ list at the end of the presentation resonates with what they’d already decided to do, they’ll say aha! and congratulate themselves (and you) for ‘getting it’. If your list usefully augments what they’d already decided to do, they’ll think you’re a genius. Your ‘what to do’ list should include at least one thing that isn’t obvious, something that shows some imagination. And your list should be practical and not too long.

While these hints may give you a bit of a safety net, they don’t compensate for the lack of presence. So, no matter what:

  1. Know your stuff,
  2. Focus on what’s really important, really novel or really interesting, and
  3. Only speak on subjects you care about to audiences you care about.

Number 3 is the most important. As important as knowledge and focus are, passion is even more important. I’ve seen nervous, tongue-tied speakers muddle through presentations extraordinarily well simply because they obviously felt very strongly and deeply about what they were saying — so the audience made allowances. When people sense that you really care about and believe in something passionately, and want to convey that passion to them, they will go out of their way to pay attention.

The same applies, in a way, to writing. A blog doesn’t give you the immediate and intense feedback that you can get in a presentation or face-to-face conversation, but the comments, e-mails and amount of buzz each article creates give you a pretty good idea of what your audience thought of it.

Much online writing is almost purely matter-of-fact — links to other online information, distillations of books or lists or summarizations of the most pertinent points on any important subject. Many of my most popular posts are synoptic, and their value comes in saving readers’ time and, sometimes, provoking their thinking. Passion is not essential to such communications. But the articles I’ve written that are argumentative, that have a point of view, that take a stand, are the ones that draw the most comment, evoke the most emotion and action, and attract regular readers as opposed to opportunistic ones.

In writing, as much as in oral discourse, what you know and what you can tell are interesting and useful, but what you really believe in, what you instill with every ounce of passion in your heart and soul, is what people remember, what changes them. And what can save the world.

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9 Responses to As Long As You Believe It

  1. This is a great follow-on for your post on listening. I think television has trained us to listen to the slick, trained speaker, and to shun the less skilled as amateur, when it’s the ideas, passion and heart of a speech we should really listen to.This is an age of specialization. Unfortunately speech-giving has become a specialization, like acting, the performance more studied than the material. If Al Gore had been a professional speaker would he have had a better chance at becoming president? Now that he’s living his passions he seems to be a better speaker than ever before.The one thing that can probably improve any non-professional speaker’s effectiveness is to pay attention to voice. It’s the pro’s stock in trade, training the voice. (I have a terrible speaking voice, which gives out way too soon to do much public speaking, so maybe this is just me focusing in on my own shortcoming–my excuse for hating to speak.)

  2. Martin-Eric says:

    The danger of point #3’s later part (only speaking about subjects your audience cares about) is that one can only ever preach to the choir. Reality shows that this is indeed the case: people whose ideas do not find acceptance within a group go out and find another group more receptive to their ideas. This brings the question: How can one ever effect change if the golden rule (as deducted from the above 3rd point) is to not bring up issues the audience is not receptive to?

  3. My response is to say I am taking a stand and am full of passion for something I believe in and now is going to become a reality; the point :: after 2.5 years and a little blog someone big, very big, reached over and said this is it to me. The rest is history and you can read what a dime, a computer, and an internet connection can turn in to. Hope this inspires all and when the new world site is up its free to join and you can have your world on SophisticaWorld because the Epiture technology allows for it to be so. This is the work I’ve been doing to change the, michaelps. you won’t find perfect spelling, or properly validated CSS or whatever that is on this site :: just the guts, the sweat, the passion to drive home a message and some very important people picked up on it and now everyone of us in the world can benefit from this.

  4. Great post. I completely agree that passion is the potatoes in public speaking. It’s hard to get that passion across in a blog post, but you seem to have driven some to me in this post. Well done, and thanks for the friendly reminder to go passionate or go home.

  5. Martin-Eric, I think the key is to find the way in for *that* audience. Except for really obvious disconnects, there’s usually common ground to be found somewhere.Fantastic post, Dave. I just did my first semi-standup type thing this Friday. Passion and honesty were, I believe, key in getting the audience on my side.

  6. Bryn Higgins says:

    Thank you for this post. I have not visited your site for a while and I happened to “Stumbleupon” it today. It came at a good time for me. Thank you.

  7. Mariella says:

    Your phrase “You can try to fake some of these things…” remided me a clinical tale in Oliver Sack´s “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” (neuroscientist in the film “Awakenings” ) called “The President´s Speech” where he explains the reaction of a group of Aphasic patients-(people who cannot understand words as such, but are able to get general meanings out of slow and natural conversations)- in a hospital, who had been waiting for the presidents speech on tv. —When he began talking, the mayority of the group “convulsed with laughter”, a few where outraged, bewildered, one or two looked apprehensive… but most of them looked amused”.. “The president was, as always, moving – but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. ¿What could they be thinking? ¿Where they failing to understand him? ¿ Or did they – perhaps – understand him too well?” —- Next time I have to give a conference I´ll rehearse imagining this guys are my audience…..!

  8. Pearl says:

    I agree. #3 is critical. I will listen anyone talk about anything if they light up talking about it. That’s an easy pleasure. If I care about something, time flies. If the spark’s not there, drudge won’t budge anyone.

  9. Janet says:

    You hit the nail on the head in stating that nothing can compensate for a lack of presence. I know this firsthand.

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