“Delivery, delivery, delivery.”
-Demosthenes, when asked to name the 3 most important components of rhetoric
Last night I gave my first public presentation about 52 Aces-related material, specifically the fundamentals of memory. It seemed to go over well and I walked away feeling like I provided some value to the audience.
I don’t know how good of a public speaker I am - I’m my own worst critic and whenever I think of my speaking engagements I tend to focus on whatever mistakes I made and how I can improve. That being said, several people came up to me afterwards and asked me about books, videos or anything else I’d used to develop my style of speaking. They all gave me suspicious looks when I told them I hadn’t studied anything.
Sure, I kept up with my principle of looking for insight in unexpected places by reading biographies of both Cicero and Demonsthenes, but neither of those books focused much on the legendary orators’ speech styles. Both of these (excellent) volumes were written more to explain their place in ancient history. Cicero was near the peak of his power around the same time Caesar shook things up in Rome, and Demosthenes led the opposition to Philip II of Macedon’s domination of Greece. I also read them long before I decided I would start speaking publicly, so anything I picked up was incidental.
Most of what I know about public speaking comes from the large number of presentations I’ve been to in the past. I have no idea how many presentations I’ve been to, but it has to be upwards of 100. The list of speakers I’ve seen includes George W. Bush (extremely entertaining), Bob Benmosche (the now-deceased former CEO of AIG), Walter Isaacson (who famously wrote the official Steve Jobs biography) and many more.
I’m also an avid fan of live comedy and have been to more shows than I can count. Audience control is the name of the game in comedy, and I’ve seen both masters (Dave Chappelle comes to mind) and amateurs deal with all kinds of crowds.
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Unfortunately, at least 90% of speakers are terrible. Even people who you expect to teach you something truly interesting often end up putting you to sleep because of their presentation style. In the spirit of Demonsthenes’s famous quote above, I’ve put together 3 rules that will maximize your chance of success when talking to an audience.
Rule #1: Be Fearless
In one my favorite aviation books, Beryl Markham’s West With The Night, she tells several stories about being out in the wilds of Kenya with Nandi tribesman. The most remarkable one involves an encounter with a lion. Although the Nandi heavily outnumbered the lion, they knew that if it charged at least one of the tribesmen would die before they could bring it down.
Since the Nandi have lived in the lion’s habitat for countless generations, they’re all too familiar with its behavior. They raised their spears and stood their ground, staring this ferocious beast down and refusing to blink. Even though they were all frightened, they knew they could not show an ounce of fear when dealing with the king of the jungle. The leader of the group stood tall, even when the lion mock-charged him. After a few tense moments, the lion backed off and went back into the bush.
Audiences are a lot like this. Stand up comedians in particular are well-versed in the primal behavior that crowds can exhibit when faced with a weak speaker. The only solution is to, at the very least, look fearless at all times. Use strong, confident body language and speak loud enough that everyone can hear you clearly. Otherwise the audience will eat you alive.
Rule #2: Don’t Bore Your Audience
If you spend time out of your life to watch someone speak, you should get a return on that investment. Speakers who make no effort to engage their audience and make sure they’re getting some sort of value out of the experience are being downright disrespectful. It may not be intentional, but intentions don’t matter in the real world - actions do.
This doesn’t mean using some kitchsy trick like telling everyone in the audience to introduce themselves to whoever they’re sitting next to, or asking the crowd how they’re doing ten times. No, keeping your audience from getting bored has far more to do with how you present your content and the amount of time you take to do it.
When I’m giving a speech, I keep my slide count to 20 or less. The slides usually don’t contain any words, and I incorporate vivid imagery on every slide. This often involves using videos as well.
I also don’t spend a ton of time actually presenting. My piece of the event is generally between ten and twenty minutes. This isn’t so I can avoid working hard on my presentation, it’s to deal with the fact that modern audiences just don’t have attention spans capable of dealing with an hour or more of content. After that small time period, phones start coming out, eyelids start drooping and you lose the audience.
Most presentations focus primarily on the speaker and whatever he or she wants to say, followed by a token Q&A session (which often has few or no questions). You should realize that this is all wrong.
Presentations are not, as is traditionally thought, about the speaker. Everything I show the audience is stuff that’s firmly in my head already, and if I wanted to hear myself talk I could just pace around by myself at home.
No, presentations are about the audience. They are the ones who should benefit the most, and the best way to accomplish this is to give them an interesting, entertaining and brief presentation, followed by an opportunity for them to engage with whatever it is you just taught them.
Rule #3: If Things Start Falling Apart, See Rule Number One
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are. Hecklers, drunkenness, people using cell phones, side conversations and other distractions can potentially derail even the most finely-tuned talk. The only way to deal with this is to not let it take the wind out of you. Don’t get emotional, don’t argue with the audience and, if possible, keep plowing ahead as if nothing’s happening.
Losing your cool will only make things exponentially worse. You can recover from a couple of bad apples in the audience, you can’t recover after losing it and unleashing a torrent of insults at said bad apples. Things will only get worse if you start to lose composure.
For example, last night there were some women having a side conversation at a few points within my talk. It was distracting and yet I knew I had to keep moving forward. I assumed they weren’t being malicious or anything, and even though it struck me as a bit rude, I didn’t take it personally. They talked to me afterwards and seemed like well-meaning, decent people. I let it go almost as soon as it started to bother me.
The worst thing that you can do in a situation like that is flip out. Above all, don’t have a Kramer moment (Google “Michael Richards standup meltdown” if you don’t know what I’m talking about - I’m not posting such a vulgar video here). Sometimes hecklers need to be dealt with, but don’t go overboard. Emotional outbursts are signs of weakness, not strength.
If you can follow these 3 rules, you’ll have the foundations for a decent presentation. Whether that presentation ends up being a success depends both on the work you put into it and the type of crowd you end up dealing with. Good luck!
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