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Working an Audience or Group

You’ve been invited to give a presentation to your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, college alumni, professional association or local high school career day. You get a queasy feeling in your stomach and dry mouth!


It has been said that the number one fear is public speaking. Not true. The most uncomfortable situation that creates fear is walking into a room full of strangers, which most people have to do. Public speaking is also daunting and ranks as our number two fear.


Giving a speech to strangers! Talk about a double whammy stomach churner. Remember, if you were invited to speak to a group, it is due to your knowledge, experience, success. People think you have something to contribute. Congratulations! That is a huge compliment.


One of the most effective skills we can develop is our ability to speak in front of an audience. CEO’s do it all the time. When I was a teacher, it was a skill that I taught my students. It was not easy to get the shy kids to take this “risk.” But, I knew they would have to present team projects in high school and that their oral presentation skills would serve them well in their futures. It was my job as their teacher to prepare them.


As you can imagine, I was NOT the most popular teacher. Because I also taught grammar, punctuation and research skills, my rep as the tough teacher of the boring subjects was already sealed.


Truth be told, I also made the students listen and behave. It was NOT enough for my students to write a grand paper or deliver it as an oral presentation. The students had to have good audience behavior for the other students’ presentations, as they were graded on that, too.


How can WE ensure good audience behavior? Simple, “work” the audience ahead of time! As a professional speaker who has spoken to hundreds of audiences ranging from 30 to 3,000, I have been my own warm-up act. When we warm up the audience, they are receptive to us and our presentation. In a nutshell, TALK to audience members BEFORE you are introduced to speak.


Remedies for the Roadblocks


These are not strangers. You have something in common with them. Maybe it’s your profession, your community, your membership in a nonprofit organization or they could be on your Board of Directors. Or maybe it’s a sales presentation to potential clients.


Introduce yourself. Look at their nametags. Make a comment, observation or ask a question about the information.


• “Nice to see you.” (with a firm handshake, eye contact and smile)
• “What brings you to the event?”
• Oh, I’m originally from Chicago. Where did you go to high school?”
• “Great tie. I see you’re a South Park fan, too. Cartman is my favorite character.”
Greeting & Meeting


You can be the “greeter” at the door as attendees enter the room, which I have done. People were so surprised and pleased to be “welcomed” into the conference luncheon; let alone by their speaker. Or walk into the audience as they are being seated and greet them. Move around the room. You don’t have to talk to each person, but do make sure you are in each section. Do include others by eye contact. Get to the back of the room because the people who go for the seats in the last few rows may need the most “warming up.”


The people with whom you have chatted will pay attention, because you’re now a person, not just a presenter. There is now a personal connection. The audience members who saw you talk to others get that same sense.


You have engaged your audience. They are now ready to listen to you. You have set the tone.


Speaking of (Public) Speaking


Corporate speech coach and first female president of the National Speakers Association, Patricia Fripp says, “there is no such thing as private speaking. Whether it is at a presentation, an investors’ meeting, tradeshow, it’s public, unless you are alone talking to yourself.”


Tips for Terrific Talks

• Know your audience. Ask the program chair several questions:
– Who will attend?
– How many will attend?
– What is the audience demographic?
– How is the program billed?
– What is the goal for your program?
– Who else is on the program and/or your panel?
– What are the needs of the group?
– Why were you invited?
• Read the group’s newsletter, trade journals, program brochure.
• Visit their website.
• Interview several people who will attend.
• Prepare your material. Get comfortable using the visuals, if you plan to do so.
• Practice so you are familiar with the three key points, subpoints and stories.
• Attend their receptions.
• Greet & Meet members of the audience.
You have just had conversations with audience members. Continue that conversation from the platform, when you deliver your presentation. Talk WITH the audience, not at them.


Opening Lines


Unless you are a great joke teller and writer, DON’T start with a joke, unless you wrote it. Many people will have heard it or read it on e-mail. Start with a story/vignette that happened to you or someone you observed or that you were told in conversation or overheard. DO NOT tell a story that you heard often or another speaker has used. It is his/her material, not yours. You run the risk of retelling a vignette the audience already knows. Boring.


Tell YOUR own stories. They are everywhere. OBSERVE. LISTEN. Write them immediately. Start telling these fun, ironic, odd occurrences to your friends. Observe their reactions. Brainstorm with yourself. Go to your favorite thinking place with a Mead spiral index card book. (Any drugstore has them.) Write one vignette per index card.


I take my aerobic walks with Post-it notes and pads of paper in my fanny pack. Sometimes I have to stop during my walk to write. If I don’t the thought disappears. Once I was aerobic walking, talking to myself and voila! the title of a chapter popped into my brain…and the concept (How to Work the Techno Toy Room). Because I keep paper and pen in my fanny pack, I wrote it down immediately or I would have lost the thought.


Be ready for ideas at all times. Have a microcassette or digital recorder or pads of paper everywhere!


Gather your own material and your presentation will be unique and yours alone. Include research stats, comments from the experts, attribute all sources (otherwise it is plagiarizing). It shows you did your homework.


Treat your audiences as the intelligent people they are. You may know a lot about Java Script, web design, financial planning, a new surgical procedure, or stress management, but don’t act patronizing.


Customize your program for the needs and members of the audience. I was on a program with General Colin Powell, who took the time to do his homework and made his presentation relate to his audience of restaurant managers. So should we all! And, I took notes, learned and was smitten with General Powell’s down-to-earthiness.


If the thought of a presentation to clients, potential clients, colleagues or community is so uncomfortable, join a Toastmasters group. Or start one in your company. The rewards will be well worth the time you invest.


And, if you “work” your audience before you speak, you will be a hit!


Some Additional Thoughts


Listen to other speakers. The people who do it most are standing at the pulpits in churches, temples and synagogues. Attend company programs where your CEO is speaking. If you are the CEO, attend the conference board sessions or industry conferences.


Listen to tapes of the great orators. Go to comedy clubs and observe the stand-up comics. Take a class in comedy or improvisation. Attend your local National Speakers Association’s meetings.


At the CEO/executive level, work with a speech coach. I do and have worked with Executive Speech Coach, Dawne Bernhardt, for over fifteen years. Her manner of giving feedback is so gracious that she is a role-model as well.


Go to live performances and observe how entertainers “work” their audiences. “Dame Edna” (comedian Barry Humphries) is masterful. The “Divine Miss M” (Bette Midler) taught me a technique I now use. And Bill Cosby’s use of the handheld microphone to create voices and sounds is instructive. Please note, as a presenter you do not have license to “pick on” any audience members as the entertainers may do.


If you talk to your audience you will never need a gimmick or have to do “shtick*” to capture their attention.


Susan RoAne is a keynote speaker and best-selling author who has “worked” trade shows, conventions, planes and pools, and has taught thousands of people to do the same. Her latest book, the updated and fully-revised best-seller, How To Work A Room, as well as The Secrets of Savvy Networking and What Do I Say Next?, are available in local and on-line bookstores. Each book is also available as an audio book.


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