Friday, July 16, 2010

Good Speakers Connect with Their Audience

To be an effective speaker, you must connect with your audience.  The photo to the right shows a woman giving a talk.  It's obvious that she is fully engaged with her audience, and it's easy to imagine that her audience is listening intently to her.  This photo illustrates a number of points to keep in mind when delivering your presentation:

1. Notice that she is facing her audience and the screen is behind her. If you spend most of your time looking at your slides, you will not be making eye contact with your audience, and at times may have your back to your audience.  Not only will you fail to connect, but people may sneak out when your back is turned!  The same goes for reading your paper--your eyes are not on your audience, but turned down. 

2. The audience needs to see you and your body language, especially your face.  You don't want to be a shadowy figure standing in front of a bright screen. I realize that you don't always have control over lighting and related conditions at a conference, but often you can modify the conditions so that both you and your slides are visible.

3. Notice also, that the woman in the photo is gesturing to make a point. Gestures help tell the audience that she is engaged with them and also make her look more confident and authoritative because she is comfortable and claiming her space.  Men typically have little difficulty with this. They wave their arms, pace around the stage--essentially staking out their territory.  Some women who are not confident tend to remain motionless and even scrunch themselves up behind the podium.  This behavior is immediately interpreted by the audience: she has little authority and her information is consequently irrelevant.

Here is a tip for women (and men) who are uncomfortable speaking in front of groups: watch confident speakers and try to emulate some of their body language (don't overdo it, though).  Pick out some movements that are consistent with your demeanor and force yourself to use them (sparingly). You may find that the mere act of gesturing broadly to indicate a point, looking deliberately into the eyes of specific audience members, or leaning casually on the podium will eventually feel natural and that your "adopted" body language will actually make you feel more confident.

4. Your voice is important also.  High, squeaky voices sound weak, whereas deeper voices sound more authoritative.  Women are at a disadvantage here, but we can strive to use the lower end of our natural range when delivering our talks. 

The whole point here is to make your audience comfortable with you.  This idea may be a surprise to some, especially novice speakers, who are so focused on their own feelings and needs.  People who are nervous speakers do things that make them feel more comfortable (hiding behind the podium; not looking at the audience; speaking softly; restricting movements; reducing visibility by having the lights too low; engaging in distracting behavior such as rocking, wringing hands, jingling change).  These behaviors make your audience uncomfortable.  They don't want to be anxious about you, but instead want to be reassured that they are in good hands.

It's within your control to make your audience comfortable or restless.  If you antagonize them, they are likely to react aggressively during the question and answer period.  So, reconsider whether those behaviors that make you feel more comfortable temporarily are really helping you in the long-run.

No comments: