Monday, March 15, 2010

5 finger exercise: How to avoid pointing

I once attended a political forum that gave "pointed" a whole new meaning, when an audience member asked how much time the candidates would spend on their elected role.  One candidate looked at the front row where the other candidate's family--including newborn twins--was seated.  Pointing at them, she snapped, "I don't see how my opponent can say he'll work full time when he has two little babies to take care of!"  You could hear sharp intakes of breath happening throughout the hall.  A few weeks later, she lost the election.

Speakers need to be wary of pointing (especially when you want the audience to vote for you). In many cultures, it's highly offensive--even a foot pointing at an audience can be insulting to some. It's directive, rather than welcoming, and that can make people feel uncomfortable.  You want to call on audience members, to acknowledge them and their questions, or to invite them to participate in some way.  So how do you do that without putting your first finger forward?  Try one of these 5 options:
  1. Extend your entire hand, not just one finger:  Keep all your fingers extended and held together, then put your arm out in the direction of the person you want to acknowledge.  It doesn't matter how you hold your hand, either. It can be palm up, palm to the side, or even palm down.  This is an authoritative but less offensive way to indicate which audience member you're interested in hearing from.
  2. Use three or two fingers, holding the others down with your thumb.  You'll see people who are gesturing directions--like flight attendants--use this all the time. 
  3. Do it the old-fashioned way: verbally.  A good old-fashioned, "Yes, the woman in the red jacket," or "Yes, what's your question?" is always a great way to call on someone.  Be prepared, however, to reinforce your words verbally; I find that when I call on audience members in this way, I often need to add, "Yes, you," to confirm my intent.
  4. If you know their names, use them.  "Bob, did you have a question on that last point?" reinforces a connection in person--and if your meeting has folks listening in on a conference line, using your colleagues' names will help the listeners who can't see the action.  Likewise, in a larger crowd, use the names of the people you know as another verbal way to avoid pointing.
  5. If you're mobile, walk up to your questioner.  There's no better way to invite a question than to go to the questioner, look her in the eye and ask, "What's your question?"   Positioning yourself directly in front of the person is the most direct way to connect and acknowledge her.
Finally, the question I get most from academics: What do I think about laser pointers?  Honestly, I think they serve to disconnect you from your audience--and you certainly should never point at a person with a laser pointer, or its old-fashioned pointer stick counterpart.  Use the gestures above to indicate where you want to audience to look for a more personal touch.

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