Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Like catnip for audiences: Irresistible speaker tactics

If only your audience for a speech or presentation could be totally focused on you, oblivious to the outside world, and completely happy when it's all over. That's exactly how I'd describe cats with catnip.

The speaker's audiences, though, can be more, say, herding cats? Try these tactics that act like catnip for audiences to pack an irresistible punch in your next presentation or talk:
  1. Include the improbable: Think about all the presentations and speeches you've endured. Which ones surprised you? When the speaker can unpack a surprise, especially an improbable reality, a great contrast, an unlikely pairing or eventuality, the audience will be more likely to pay attention. 
  2. Tell a story on yourself: If you can share your embarrassment, hesitation, mistakes, missed opportunities and aha! moments, we'll feel like we've gotten to know you better. Audiences love connecting with you in this way.
  3. Show me an invisible visual: Forget the slides. Show me a picture I can see in my mind's eye--something you describe so vividly that it sticks with me--and I'll remember your talk long after the applause, and enjoy it more while it's happening.
  4. Toss your script: Sorry, speechwriters, but there's little that can be more electric to an audience than a speaker who puts her script aside. This takes planning, but when it's done right, it's a crowd-pleaser.
  5. Give it dimensions: Props can bring abstract ideas into physical reality, and if you're brave enough to wield an unusual prop, one that makes the audience suddenly think about what it would be like to hold such a thing, so much the better. Think neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor holding a human brain while she talked about her stroke, or Bill Gates opening a jar of mosquitoes during a talk about malaria. Help us think and see in three dimensions.
  6. Be quiet: Too many speakers fill up all the time allotted. The speaker who can let me hear the spaces between the sounds she's making, and who uses silence to advantage, has my full attention.
  7. Come to me: Get out from behind that lectern or get down from the podium and walk toward and into the audience. Your presence in and with the audience makes the speech come alive, more like a real conversation than a talking-to.
There's one more trick to using any of these catnip tactics: Use them with discretion. Remember, catnip is strong, so a very little of it will do.