It doesn’t matter whether your speaking to your team, presenting to the board or giving a speech at an AGM or annual conference, you are on before you’re on and being aware of that is critical to the success of your communication.
There is always an elephant in the room that you either need to tame or put down otherwise it will trample over any content you hope to impart.
Sometimes it’s the way you look, the way you speak, an accent, a stutter, a hiccup in your gait, your professional position relative to those you’re speaking to, the remnants they’re carrying from your last piece of communication or even the cultural climate you’re speaking into.
As a professional speaker, when I walk on stage, there are usually two thoughts running through an audiences head, “That guy’s fat,” and “I know that guy from somewhere.” So I take that thought off the table by referencing my weight and the TV show I appeared on for many years, “A couple of months ago I heard a woman at the next table whisper to her companion, ‘He’s the fat one off the Gruen Transfer…’” The audience can then relax, they know why they know me and also that I’m aware of my fondness for pie.
Sometimes the elephant in the room actually has nothing to do with you or what you’re presenting. Matt Church, one of the world’s best professional speakers once took to the stage after a very popular member of the audience had had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. At that point, Matt could have decided to press <PLAY> and deliver his content on transmit mode, or as he decided to, he could meet the audience where they were emotionally and move them slowly to where he wanted them to be.
Too often we get caught up in what we’re presenting: our content, our pitch, our sales patter of features, benefits, case studies and statistics and forget that the audience’s state is not always where we need them to be.
I once followed Paul de Gelder on stage. He’s a navy diver who had part of an arm and leg taken off by a shark in Sydney Harbour whilst on duty. It’s an inspiring, but bloodily graphic story. The audience was clearly impacted by his story. I had to follow up with some business content and my brief was, “Make them think, but make them laugh.”
I expected the MC, who’s a friend of mine, to reset the audience before introducing me, but what I got was, “Next up, we’ve got Dan Gregory talking about influence…” Before I could get into my presentation, I needed to acknowledge what the room had just experienced and shift their state so they could hear what I had to say and experience a completely different emotion to what they had been sitting in for the previous hour.
So how do we use the fact that we’re on before we’re on?
1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room
There are many kinds of metaphorical elephants and the reason they’re called elephants is that they’re too big to ignore. So deal with what’s pressing in the minds of your audience before you move to what’s a priority for you. You don’t need to have a solution (if it’s a problem) or a joke (if it’s a personal feature), simply let the audience know that you know where they are.
2. Turn your foibles or weaknesses into an asset
We like to think that our weaknesses are hidden. So let’s be clear… they’re not. When you’re communicating with someone and you’re nervous, or dismissive or angry, it telegraphs very clearly. The key is to acknowledge our obvious weaknesses in a way that makes them useful to our message. Not only does this take the elephant out of the room, it also connotes a sense of authenticity and confidence.
3. Understand the state the audience is in
Never present without an understanding of the present context of your audience – even in a one to one conversation. Be in the room early or assess their emotional state through a third party. Even the best communicators in the world will struggle if they misread the mood of the room.
4. Know what your presentation character is and how it will be experienced by others
My business partner of many years, Kieran Flanagan, has been a leader in a world dominated by MadMen for the past 25 years, despite being a short blonde with a bubbly personality. Kieran knows that she will often be underestimated, in fact, she considers it her super power. She also uses this underestimation as a source of humour. Kieran describes her presentation character as Reese With-a-knife (not Witherspoon) – she’s bright-eyed and optimistic, but sharp and cutting when she needs to be. She uses the audience’s prejudices about her appearance and voice as leverage to build the experience she wants them to have
So, how are the people you are communicating with perceiving you?
More importantly, how do they perceive you before you’ve even said a word?