Monday, April 19, 2010

Speaker quest: In search of the shared experience

Photo: TED/Robert Leslie
"Who's stranded?" asked TED's June Cohen of the audience of more than 100 people pictured at right. That's because they were attending TEDxVolcano, a speaking conference thrown together--with the quick blessings of TED--when a few conferences' worth of speakers found themselves stranded in London in the aftermath of the Icelandic volcano this week.

The conference and the audience show-of-hands poll are a great reminder for speakers: There's no better way to connect with a group than to reflect and call attention to its shared experiences.  The experience may be caused by forces at work within the venue, the conference at which you're speaking or--as with the volcano--forces beyond anyone's control. If you, as the speaker, can marshall that shared experience and energy and feed it back to the crowd, you'll have a more dynamic and successful speech or presentation.  Here are some examples of how I've seen that done:
  • Acknowledge what's top of mind:  I worked for a membership organization whose president had to open its annual conference not long after the U.S. invaded Iraq.  We'd heard that some members couldn't attend the conference because their National Guard units had been activated, and others shared their fears for children or spouses in the military; at the same time, it was important to avoid taking political sides for this speaker.  So we had her open the session by asking members to stand if they were veterans...active military or National Guards...or had a spouse, child or other relative being deployed, pausing between each group's mention.  A good third of the audience was on its feet by the end, allowing them to feel acknowledged and letting the full audience see who was affected by the week's larger events.
  • Use the backchannel:  You (or a Twitter moderator helping you) should keep an eye on the Twitter backchannel during your speech, and in the sessions just prior to it, to get a sense of how the meeting or conference shared experience is shaping up.  Being able to work in a reference to what's happening in real time, positive or negative, will tell your audience you're paying attention--and they'll be more likely to return the favor.
  • Create interactive shared experiences during your presentation:  Asking your audience to do something together while you're presenting can create a shared experience and make your talk more memorable.  Ask them to work with their seatmates on a problem for a few minutes.  Pass around a prop or sample they can examine close up.  Whisper something to one person and have the audience pass it around the room, then see what comes out on the other side.
How have you created or used a shared experience with your audience?  Leave your examples in the comments.