Sunday, September 20, 2009

The 6 strongest speaker statements

Want to look confident? Want to hold your audience's attention? Want to make your point stick? You can do all the tricks and tropes out there, but these six phrases, in my experience, almost always grip the listener, make the speaker look strong, save her from a world of trouble, and invite real connection with your audience. Keep these in your back pocket for a stronger speech:

  1. I don't know. The power of this simple statement increases with your level of expertise, yet it works for all speakers. Refusing to go beyond what you know shows good sense, and helps you avoid a multitude of problems later. But it also exudes confidence. Other ways to say "I don't know" gracefully: "I wish I knew that, but I don't," or, with a big smile, "If I had the answer to that fine question, I'd be a millionaire," or, "Who can really say? That's always been a mystery to me," with a shrug and a smile. But only if that's true for you. Not answering a question? Work a rhetorical question into your remarks, and answer your own question with an "I don't know"--a strong way to underscore uncertainty on an issue, or establish your own place in the discussion, with power.

  2. I disagree. Many speakers, aiming to please the audience, feel they must agree with what audience members say. But confusing agreement with acknowledgment, or with your credibility, means your speech can and will go wrong. Disagree with calm, respect and even good humor, but if you disagree with a questioner's point, do it. It's fine to say, "I see your point, but I disagree," or simply, "I disagree. In my experience..." or "research shows definitively that..." Sometimes, disagreeing may be more subtle. If an audience member's question presumes something about you ("It sounds like you've always wanted to be a politician..."), be sure to refute the assumption ("My real goal, growing up, was to be a scientist").

  3. I agree. When you can genuinely--not every time--agree with an audience member's point, it's a powerful way to establish or reinforce your connection with the group. Be sure, as the speaker, to share some perspective of your own on why you agree. And play around with some graceful ways to say you agree: "Ain't it the truth?" "I'm just sayin'," or "I'm with you there" are all fun ways to cement the agreement connection.

  4. I'm surprised. Again, only if it's genuine. But if you're surprised by the question, sharing that reaction automatically pricks up the audience's ears. Then be sure to explain yourself.

  5. I'm sorry. Too often forgotten by erring politicians, this simple phrase can take the tension out of an exchange faster than anything else. If you've erred, be quick with your sorry statement, and then you can move forward with your remarks. Without it, you may never recover.

  6. I'd like to hear what you have to say. The speaker's power in large part derives from control of the microphone, the room, the stage. When you open it up to the audience and share that power, you demonstrate your confidence and show your willingness to hazard the unexpected--making you even more powerful.

It's not a mistake that all these phrases start with "I...," the most powerful statement any individual can make, according to psychologists--and also, the most genuine. You can't speak for anyone else, and no one else can speak for you, so start with "I" and see where that gets you.

5 ways to find out about your audience

That sea of faces, those nudging/BlackBerry-ing/distracted people, the eager fans, the strangers, your office colleagues. Who are they? What do they want from you? What should you know about your audience?

That was reader Emily Culbertson's question, posed on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. I think speakers have five opportunities, at minimum, to find out what they need to know about an audience. Are you making use of all of them?
  1. Ask the organizers. I always take the time to ask the organizers of any conference, session or meeting at which I'm speaking what I should know about the audience, especially in reference to my topic. What prompted them to put on a program with this topic? Why was I invited? What does the group expect from me? What's their level of knowledge about my topic--beginner/moderate/expert? What are their concerns? Is this an important issue for the group? Why? If it is relevant to your topic, it may help to ask about the demographic makeup of the audience, such as age ranges and gender. And then ask the last, best question: What else should I know about this talk and this audience? to get at the answers you can't anticipate.
  2. Ask yourself. Two questions that only you can answer will help shape your talk and your approach to the audience: Do I have something in common with them? Have I been or am I a member of this group? Use the answers to build in some details to your speech that are unique to the group, if you are a member, or that build a connection with your audience by sharing your commonalities.
  3. Ask the audience beforehand. If you know members of the group to which you're speaking, by all means, reach out to them. (Anyone who lets me know they're coming to hear me speak usually gets a response email saying, "And what would you like me to cover?" or "What issues do you see on this topic?") But even if you don't know the audience, you can post a question on your blog, Facebook or LinkedIn profile or on Twitter to get a sense of what the audience might want. Some organizers use electronic registration programs to elicit audience questions, so ask your program's organizers if they do that--and get the questions in advance.
  4. Ask the audience in person. I often start with a quick poll of the audience--a few questions to which they can respond with just a show of hands--to gauge things like level of expertise (such as "Who's using Twitter for business purposes?" for a social media talk) or to establish a bond between the audience and myself ("Who else is here because their boss thought it would be a good idea?" or "How many mothers are in this audience?) Want to know more? Start with some Q&A before you begin your formal presentation. This is a powerful tactic that works well when the audience is likely to have a wide range of expertise or questions about your topic, and helps give you a preview of what's to come, so you can adjust your remarks. If you try this, don't answer all the initial questions--after all, your talk should do that--but let it be known that you want them all on the floor. Then open it back up to questions when you're done.
  5. Ask the audience afterward. If your organizers use a feedback form, by all means, read the comments to learn what else you can do next time. And don't forget the value of lingering to answer questions one-on-one. Many audience members prefer to speak privately, or to wait to contact you for a few weeks, so be open to these opportunities to ask them what they liked or wanted to see more of.

Related posts: A checklist to prepare the whole speaker

What's your speaker presence? Questions to gauge the effect of your speech

What happened when I put the Q&A at the start of a speech

What to do when you're losing the audience