Public Speaking

Don't Talk to Your Audience, Talk With Them

Don't Talk to Your Audience, Talk With Them
Image credit: Jason Wen | Flickr
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When we think about public speaking, the first thing that comes to mind is "them" and "us." The public is receivers and the speaker is the giver. Audience members are onlookers and the speaker is the information spectacle. This needs to change.

For our message to touch the minds and even the hearts of our audience, we must allow real communication to take place between them and us. By communication I mean the act of listening to, knowing and learning from each other.

The truth is the audience doesn’t only need to get us; we need to get them. Only when we do this, can our talks, keynotes and presentations be fruitful and achieve the results we want them to.

Our message, brand and experiences can hit the audience more effectively when we communicate with them not by talking to them. If we fail to do the former, our message has a greater risk of falling flat.

Related: Want to Improve Your Public Speaking? There's an App for That.

Here are a few tips on how public speakers can truly communicate with their audience. These pointers will help you take your presentation to the next level by helping you put communication first.

Hear what’s not being said

The most important thing in communication is to hear what’s not being said. Audiences talk back in silence, apprehension, dismissal, headshakes, head nods and handclaps. If we fail to pay these any mind we will lose. Silence can mean disinterest or it can mean they are chewing on the information. Headshakes can mean they connect with the material or that they disagree with your points.

We must be on the look out for this kind of “talk’ from the audience so we can know where they stand, what they are getting or not getting and adapt accordingly.

So instead of imagining your audience naked as a way to present with courage, see them for who they really are. What they have to say during your presentation is vital to your success.

Related: Why You Should Make Time to Speak Up for Your Business

Make a joke

Making jokes as a speaker is not just a rhetorical technique. Yes, it lightens up the audience and releases nervous energy, but you will be amazed at how humor connects us.

For philosopher, Ted Cohen, humor creates intimacy and a sense of community. Cohen writes “I need reassurance that this something inside of me, the something that is tickled by a joke, is indeed something that constitutes an element of my humanity… I discover something of what it is to be a human being by finding this thing in me, and then having it echoed in you, another human being.”

Tell a joke. Make your audience laugh. It will connect you in ways that can’t be described.

Ask questions

Questions should not only be reserved for Q&A. There is a time and place for asking questions during your talk or presentation. I’m not talking about employing the Socratic method as a way to show how brilliant you are and how wrong they are. I’m talking about the kinds of questions that tells us if the audience is engaged or where we should go in our talk. No one does this better than entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk.

Before Vaynerchuk speaks he always asks, “How many people in this room have heard of me before?” This is not a narcissistic investigation. What he is doing is trying to determine what direction in his speech he should take given what he knows about his audience. Vaynerchuk is known for his love of Q&A sessions after his talk but what makes his actual talks resonate is that he doesn’t assume he already knows his audience nor does he already have a preplanned direction of where he will go. Through communication with his audience, they tell him where he needs to go and what he needs to cover. This is true communication at its best.

I’m not suggesting you come unprepared. Vaynerchuk is very prepared. I’m suggesting that you ask questions during your talk. Ask about your audience’s needs, desires, experiences and knowledge -- and listen to them. You will be amazed at what you find out and how that will shape or impact your presentation.

Make or embrace a mistake

We all want to be perfect. I get it. But making an intentional mistake can remove barriers between you and the audience. It will also show you who they are -- if they are in your corner or not and if they are also full of flaws.

Mistakes can also bring you down to earth. Pulitzer Prize journalist and oral historian, Stud Terkel, was known for pressing the wrong recording buttons during interviews. The interviewee would say, "Hey, it’s not moving," and he would say, "Oh my God, I pressed the wrong button." Terkel admits that was nice because that interviewee was no longer intimidated by him. The interviewee now knows she is facing a goof ball and it makes her more comfortable and relaxed.

I know it may be hard not to come off as the image of perfection in front of a large group but remember to always aim for connection over perfection. That’s the motto of true communication.

At a TedX talk I gave recently, there was a technical difficulty with my microphone. I was talking for two minutes, but it was not on. It was the best thing to happen! I embraced that mistake with a good sense of humor, and it brought my audience and me together at the very start.

A new day

This is a new day of information and also a new day of communication. Our conversation with an audience is not a monologue; it’s a dialogue. As much as we are talking, they are talking back. If we don’t hear them, they won’t hear us. If we don’t create ways to come down to Earth, our message will stay in the clouds.  If we don’t connect with people, we will not make a great impact.

The next time you have to speak in front of a group of people, remember that your aim is not to give a speech. You should aim to communicate.

A brilliant speaker creates intimacy. Intimacy communicates better than any rhetorical genius, relying on only words and charisma, ever could.

Related: Your Next Speaking Engagement: 7 Secrets to Ensure Massive Success