Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making the audience part of your keynote

Some speakers fear what the audience knows, figuring that smartypants or showoff in the back row is going to nail them on a forgotten detail or challenge their basic thesis. (Academics, does this sound familiar?) It's the single biggest reason I hear from trainees about why they think they need to overprepare, and it builds lots of pre-presentation anxiety.  But if you take that assumption--that you'll have audience members who know things you don't that are relevant to the topic--and make use of it in a positive way, you can turn that situation to your advantage and take all the stress out of that anticipation.  The trick: Letting the audience members show what they know.

I'm not talking here about other tactics like taking a poll of the audience.  This is all about using your audience's expert knowledge before you ever get to question and answer time.

You can stack the deck in your favor by doing some audience research:  Which organizations and companies will be represented in your audience? What are the specialist roles audience members play? (In a group of communicators, are there PR and marketing and government relations specialists, for example?  Among scientists, are they industry, government or academic researchers? and so on.)  Then, include some examples from those organizations or specialities in your presentation...and encourage the participants with links to those examples to share more details.

This approach can net you not only instant engagement--who doesn't like to see someone else show off their work?--but extra knowledge. In this post on her keynote at a nonprofit forum on social media, consultant Beth Kanter recalls how she shared this video, a Lady Gaga takeoff promoting the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, during the talk:

She chose to put examples in her keynote from organizations she knew would be in the audience and notes that it made all the difference in engaging them--and in helping the entire group, including herself, learn more than they would otherwise:
....making the audience part of the slide deck and inviting commentary surfaces the wisdom and knowledge in the room. Take for example the SFSPCA Facebook Page, a stellar example of engaging fans that David discovered for me. There was also a wonderful blog, “Litter Did You Know” and the above video about “Lady Meow Meow.” But the real story was when the SFSPCA staff shared during the keynote was that these regular videos are produced by volunteers.
Beth calls this a "conversational keynote," but I think it's compelling. That's a powerful fact, following a powerful video: I can imagine other audience members thinking, "Wow, they must've had some budget to pull that off," then finding out, straight from the source and not the speaker, that it was a volunteer effort. Surprise, education and engagement, all rolled into one, for the win!

I had a similar experience with a keynote on social media I did for Washington's chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, where I started the keynote with audience questions and included examples from attendees' companies in my presentation.  When the talk turned to knowing whether your employees want a social network for internal communications, this Marriott communicator shared important insights, noting it's important to survey first, and thoroughly, before deciding:

That's a piece of inside information that made our discussions all the more pertinent and informed.

This takes some planning.  But wouldn't you rather spend your prep time thinking of ways to surprise and delight your audience with examples featuring them, and channeling their expertise, than worrying about who's going to nail you on slide 15?  Give this tactic a try and report back on your progress.

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