5 Ways great speakers connect with their audience

The art of public speaking is actually the art of connecting. So the lessons in this field apply to everyone since each of us needs to make connections. If you can connect with a room full of people, then you can also connect with an audience of one. And the people we remember most are not those with the smartest commentary or sharpest wit. We remember people we feel we connected with.

1. Tell stories
A good way to make connections is telling stories. Chip and Dan Heath wrote a whole book – Made to Stick – on the different types of stories we can construct from the pieces of our lives in order to make people remember us. The key is to have a storyline with conflict and resolution, even if it’s very short. This takes practice because you need to know your stories before you start talking, but once you have the stories, your ability to connect with people improves dramatically.

2. Look deeply at individuals in the audience
Many people say they don’t actually know how well they connect with their audience. Getting audience feedback is an art. TAI Resources, a New York City communications coaching institute, teaches people how to read the audience by searching for a connection.

TAI coaches clients to look at one person until they’ve made one point. You know you are supposed to look at your audience when you talk to them. But in a large room, it’s easy to pick your head up without ever really seeing. That is, you scan the audience constantly and never let your eyes land.

We do this because it’s so hard to talk in an unengaging way and look someone in the eye. And most public speakers are not particularly engaging. You can test yourself – to see if you’re really connected – by forcing yourself to look at one single person while you make a point. Get out the whole idea before you let your eyes move to the next person.

This is a way to know for sure if you are connecting with your audience when you talk. Sticking with one person for each point is painful and nearly impossible if you are not truly connecting your material to that person.

3. Be honest about how you’re doing
But what do you do when you see you aren’t connecting? Some people ignore it, or trick themselves into thinking there is a connection: Think about all the deadly PowerPoint presentations you’ve sat through where the speaker was oblivious to boredom. This tactic alienates an audience, and makes reestablishing a connection very difficult.

Comedian Esther Ku says the best thing to do when you can tell you’re not connected is to acknowledge it. “If a joke fails, I poke fun at myself so I show the audience that I’m aware of what’s going on.” The audience doesn’t need constant genius, the audience needs to know you are clued into how they are reacting. Then you get another try.

4. Smile, even if it’s fake
Your nonverbal body language influences people’s reactions to you more than what you say. For example, Allan and Barbara Pease spend a whole chapter of their book, The Definitive Book of Body Language, dissecting the power of a smile. If you smile at your audience, they are likely to smile back. And a smile engenders good feelings and a true connection — even if the smile is forced, because we are pretty bad at recognizing a fake smile. (This is because when we are forcing a smile, we are still genuinely trying to make a positive connection, so most people will read the nonverbal cue as positive.)

5. Relax
A fake smile is okay. But overwhelming nerves is not. And audience can read uptight pretty clearly, and they don’t like it – it’s not inspiring or trustworthy.

There are lots of ways to get yourself to relax before you connect. One is, of course, to know your material well. But a lot of relaxation is physical, not mental. Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley found that a reliable way to decrease nerves is to have sex before speaking. There are many physical activities that work to decrease the stress of speaking. For example, Ku prepares for a show by jumping up and down for two minutes before she goes on stage.

But what if you do all this and you still don’t connect? Blame it on the audience and try again somewhere else. Because as Ku says, “Some audiences are just not right for you.”

Posted in No image, Promoting yourself, Self-management
20 comments on “5 Ways great speakers connect with their audience
  1. Dave Willison says:

    This is great! It just so happens that I’m off to my first Toastmasters session tonight. Perfect timing for the advice, thanks!

  2. Senanbar says:

    Excellent post, PT. The importance of public speaking and connecting with an audience cannot be overrated.

  3. Queercents says:

    Penelope,

    Those tips are helpful. I wish sex was an option before every public speaking opportunity… unfortunately it’s not unless you practice the Larry Craig on-the-run variety.

    Many years ago, I read this tip in a book. It suggested repeating this mantra right before:

    "I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad you're here. I care about you. I know what I know."

    It sounds silly but to this day, I still repeat that phrase about ten times right before I stand up or I’m introduced. It has a weird calming effect.

    So I love your sex idea, but a chant is my next best alternative.

  4. thom singer says:

    Most people under-value the importance of preparing for a presentation. They just plan to “wing it”. Knowing what you want to say, how you will say it, and how you will inspire your audience with a call to action is paramount to any public speaking opportunity.

    If someone has never participated in a Toastmasters Club, I highly recommend doing so for ONE YEAR. These clubs exist all over the country and meet once a week for about 60 – 90 minutes. Every city has multiple clubs, so check out a few to decide which has the best time, location and mix of people for your personal needs. Being active in Toastmasters is the most important thing I ever did for my career. I learned to be a speaker, not just someone who gets up and talks. This has lead to better career opportunities, the two books I have written, and now being paid to speak.

    Last thing on speaking…. do not tell jokes if you are not a commedian. Nothing is worse than some schmoe trying to deliver a joke to warm up the audience when it is not directly related to the topic.

  5. kathy k. says:

    Regarding being stressed or uptight before speaking: Give it a different name. What you feel is the same thing that the quarterback feels waiting for the snap, that the marathoner feels waiting for the starting gun, that the actor/actress feels waiting for the cue to get on stage. If you don’t have some anticipation, tension or energy building up in you, you will fall flat. Rename it, embrace it and make it work for you.

    * * * * * * *

    Kathy, thanks for pointing out the importance of reframing. A little nerves at the beginning is good — keeps you on your toes and keeps you excited for what’s to come. As a speaker, I love the anticipation of not knowing what, exactly, will happen. It’s nerve-wracking, but fun!

    –Penelope

  6. t h rive says:

    Good topic, and the tips from comments are good too!

    I often have to speak out in settings where I am clearly an outsider (culturally), and it's not always easy. The best things I can do is:
    * do stay relaxed – €“ the sense of fear leads to pity or mistrust, you don't want either of those
    * find your toughest character and focus on them – €“ I knew before hand who'd be the most stubborn, I tried and tried until I found that connection Penelope was talking about
    * end on a good note and ask for feedback, and challenge.

    I always ask for challenge. I don't want people holding back what they really want to say; afterall, I likely just said what I wanted to as well.

  7. Dale says:

    Penny,

    One thing that has always worked for me is to cater the style and content of the speech to the particular audience.
    I delivered a presentation to a room full of media people at W–U, the local radio/public television station, and it was great. The topic was on what their audience thought of them, and wanted from the stations’ programming.
    In contrast, when I gave the same presentation to a group of the individuals who had attended the focus group sessions, they were not as enthused, at first until I changed the guist of my message to highlight how the subjects reacted to my questions, using examples, and showing how their feedback would help the station change it’s programming.
    Part of the problem here is that people want any message to resonate with them in two ways. First, they want a style of communication that they are comfortable with, and they love being the center of the story – if possible.
    Just my thoughts.

  8. Dale says:

    I guess what I was trying to say, but didn’t, was to know your audience and to use that knowledge to craft your message. In addition to the above suggestions.

  9. Kathy S says:

    WRT the site where you can test whether you can distinguish fake vs real laugh.. I bet you could score MUCH better than 7/20 if you thought about the context a little more.

    I did this test and got a much higher score. What I did was I put myself in their place and asked “what are they being shown?”. I decided that they are being shown signs of either something funny or of a blank sign (saying LAUGH). When they see the blank sign, they are supposed to laugh anyway, even though it’s not funny. So, I could easily tell when they saw this blank sign as their reflexes were slightly slow.

    If I hadn’t of taken the time to figure out their context, I would have scored low too.. I just took the time to understand what was really going on..

  10. Benjamin Strong says:

    Penelope,

    What perfect timing! I make it a habit of checking your blog or my feed each morning. This week I am in London giving a presentation to a group of shipping executives. I read your post about 30 minutes before my talk. I certainly didn't have time to have sex before my presentation but I was able to do two sets of jumping jacks and survey the crowd for a few folks to try and connect with while speaking.

    I also smiles, a lot, and told a joke. The joke bombed but I followed up with "For my next trick I can swallow my foot" which garnered more laughs than my feeble attempt at humor. It almost seems you get more laughs making fun of yourself than trying to actually be funny.

    The presentation went extremely well. Thank you for this important, valid, and timely information!

    Cheers from London!

  11. d says:

    First, some criticism, then a suggestion.

    As a regular reader who knows how badly your BlogHer outing went–precisely because of audience disconnect–one is slightly incredulous at your dispensing advice on connecting with an audience.

    A more credible–and probably more valuable–column would frame your content from today within your BlogHer experience: What didn’t serve you well, and how the ideas you discuss here would have helped you.

  12. Brian Johnson says:

    I don’t know anything about BlogHer, but really appreciate this great information. Also love Kathy’s comment about channeling nervous energy. I used to experience this as a musician – the best performances were always the ones with a touch of stagefright right beforehand. I had a teacher that always had us mentally focus on that fine line between relaxed confidence and nervous excitement.

    Terrific info – thanks for sharing the valuable insights from TAI.

  13. jen_chan, writer SureFireWealth.com says:

    Hi. I think connection with the audience is a really good point and sharing stories is the easiest way to go about it. Somehow, it makes the speaker appear more human and the audience better understands the topic when they can relate to the story. I hear sharing a story that has conflict and resolution is also effective during an interview. It helps interviewers recognize just what kind of qualities you possess.

  14. Ann says:

    Great tips for speaking!

    I just wanted to thank you for the career session last night at UW and pass along just how well you engaged your audience. After our group breakouts everyone was hoping for more discussion with you~*

    Your braid theory was a hit! Although I do think sometimes I suffer from braid envy… like 23 yr. old Ryan who seems to have it all figured out ;)

  15. Jason Warner says:

    If you really think about it, most audiences really just want to be entertained (on the basest of human levels). Human beings are preprogrammed for infotainment.

    Your content can’t suck (you can never make up for lousy content), but when judging performance in a speaking engagement, the most dynamic, entertaining and memorable speaker will always get the highest scores. People won’t remember what you said (again it can’t suck) but they will remember how the experience made them feel.

    That’s why story telling really works.

    Apart from that, creating a richly dynamic experience for the audience really matters:

    1.) involve the audience by asking them questions and getting them involved.
    2.) the richer the content in terms of media the more engaging the presentation (video, music, physical movement – try walking around IN your audience instead of remaining on stage or at the podium)
    3.) increase your energy level to near the point of absurdity.
    4.) Include some sort of action/rewards audience stimulus, where the audience has a stake: I always try and bring giveaways, and create an audience activity (such as them asking questions) in order to give the items away.

    A great book to consider reading is Influencer, (Patterson, Grenny and others) which just came out, which talks in great depth about the power of story telling.

    The person with the most dynamic infotainment wins, not the smartest nor the one with the absolute best content.

    Jason

  16. Dale says:

    In the article that I reference here, Lee Iacocca once noted, “You can have brilliant ideas; but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” The following snippet is a very good example of this.

    “In their new book, The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor G. Richard Shell and management consultant Mario Moussa provide a systematic approach to idea selling.
    They tell the story of rock star Bono’s visit to then-Senator Jesse Helms’ Capitol Hill office to enlist his help in the global war against AIDS.
    Bono had all the facts and figures at his fingertips, and launched into a detailed appeal based on this data. He was, in essence, speaking to Helms the same way he had recently spoken to executives and technical experts at the many foundations and corporations he had approached about this issue. But within a few minutes, Bono sensed that he was losing Helms’ attention, and he instinctively changed his pitch. Knowing that Helms was a deeply religious man (and drawing on his own born-again Christian values), Bono began speaking of Jesus Christ’s concern for the sick and poor. He argued that AIDS should be considered the 21st century equivalent of leprosy, an affliction cited in many Bible stories of the New Testament. Helms immediately sat up and began listening, and before the meeting was over had promised to be the Senate champion for Bono’s cause.”

    Communication is all about the audience!

  17. Dennis Smith says:

    These are terrific pointers! And, being a recruiter, I couldn’t help but think how much more effective we recruiters would be in an interview if we’d follow these same principles:

    Tell Stories
    (about the companies culture – about the leadership style of the company – you’ll be much more engaging…and interesting)

    Look deeply at the audience
    (show them you are interested!)

    Be Honest
    (please, can’t we just all be honest for a change)

    Smile
    (seriously, I know you think that interviewers are supposed to be cold and stoic, but this is 2007 – deal with it)

    Relax
    (I promise you’ll have a lot more fun this way).

  18. GreatManagement says:

    This is a great post and I totally agree with the 5 ways.

    I have performed numerous presentations to 1000's of people and written by own book on the subject.

    Therefore, I would like to add:

    Planning and preparation. What are the audience expecting? How will you know the presentation was a success? If you want to look great (remember you are on show) you will not be able to bluff your way through.

    Visual/aids/props – should I use them? What are the best ways to use them? I always do and they have to be in context with the content.

    Actual delivery – make sure you are passionate about the subject.

    Post delivery. Ask for and get some feedback – so next time the presentation is even better.

    Andrew

  19. Annie says:

    This is a great article. This book, “Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear” has helped a bunch of people beat stage fright. A cognitive psychologist and a successful and theatre prof put the book together. The first half covers the cognitive techniques and the second half contains interviews about stage fright with celebrities like Robin Williams, Melissa Etheridge and much more: http://howtobeatstagefright.com

  20. Gregory Tucker says:

    Some good points here. As a community college instructor, I look forward to applying some of the tips. Tip #3, Be honest about how you’re doing, is one I will try to utilize right away.

    In regards to Tip #3, I think it’s important to know if we are connecting with the audience. That way we’re able to make adjustments, and maybe find a way to make a connection. Sometimes it’s easier just to plow forward without recognizing feedback from our audience. I’m guilty. Maybe we’re afraid to acknowledge the truth of the matter….that the audience is bored, or disagrees with us, or whatever the case may be. But this sort of feed back should not be looked upon as a bad thing.

    If we just own up to our lack of connection with our audience, while focusing on our main objective, which is to connect and engage, we will stand a much better chance of connecting and getting our point across.

    Letting ourselves be real, and realizing we are not perfect, can help us not take a disconnection with our audience so personally. With this understanding, we can be more effective at finding what we are, or are not doing, that is causing their disinterest. And then, maybe we won’t appear as just someone in front of the room, just rambling off a bunch of words, but a real person, who understands and can touch the human side of the audience. And hopefully achieve the main objective of why we are there in the first place…to effectively communicate our message.

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