What kind of audience intimidates you most? How do you feel when you wake up that morning to face them? What goes through your mind? We all have our favorite audiences and because they are our favorites it is easy to connect with them. We are opened to it. Our mindset is different when approaching an audience we view as challenging.
Recently a principal asked me to come speak at career day to her kids. Eleven year olds. Yikes! That is like kryptonite to me. It wasn’t just one class. It was a presentation for twenty-five minutes, a five-minute break, then another class. Five times! I happened to be in Vegas that week, so I could not use travel as an excuse. I knew it would be challenging. I knew it would stretch me. I knew it was the right thing to do.
I love kids and I’m very close to my nephews, but a formal presentation? They can eat you alive! I summoned wisdom of my super friends and past experience. Several lessons were learned and relearned that day in Henderson, Nevada.
#1) The privilege of influence
We are role models to kids and friends around us whether we like it or not. When put in this very clear position or role model we can’t take it lightly. My mind went back to Mark Brown, my coach, who reminded me of a deeper purpose than the trophy when preparing for the World Championship of Public Speaking. Mark said, “Darren, you have the privilege of seven minutes in two-thousand lives, what will you do with it?” Wow.
We all love the great audiences that are easy to connect to. That’s fun and exciting. Often you will be given the same privilege in front of audiences we aren’t so excited about. I believe we have a responsibility. It has been said and referenced many times, “To those much is given much is expected.”
Even if we don’t feel connected, even if it doesn’t feel good, we are still influencing. If we want the opportunity of the easy audiences we must still serve the ones that, in our mind, are challenging.
#2) We must connect first
This is an immutable law of presenting. All of your work and can go in vain if we do not first establish a connection. That’s why I created my new program CONNECT! There is so much we can do to connect and it is so important to getting the results you and the event planner desire.
“We must connect before we can educate, inspire or persuade.”
That quote seems to resonate with people wherever I speak. It is the truth. When interviewing Mark Brown about speaking to diverse audiences, he said we must find common ground. I combined that advice with that of David Brooks, 1990 World Champ when he references a lesson he learned, “We all have different stories, but we all share the same seven emotions.” So if we share emotions, I decided to start there.
I started by saying to the kids, “Raise your hand if you ever felt frustrated?” They all raised their hands. Then I continued, “What frustrates you?” Common answers included siblings and homework. What exactly their frustration was didn’t matter. What mattered most is that we had enjoyed common ground. That gets us a closer connection.
Everyone has an innate desire to be heard. Though tougher audiences may not be willing to participate, find a way. Sometimes breaking that ice is a challenging task and once you do you may open a flood gate even if it only starts with a trickle. Each person who participates represents the whole audience. When you listen to one you are listening to all.
Though they were of the similar age range each class I spoke to was a unique experience. Each had its own connection. Surprising to me the younger ones asked many more questions than the older children.
I made sure I acknowledged each question and took the time to hear them out. I made sure I focused and gave them full eye contact and full attention. What I loved was the honesty of their questions. There was a boy in the front row seated on the floor with a cast on his arm. When I asked if anyone had questions, he politely raised his hand and sheepishly asked, “Would you tie my shoe?” I did. You have to remove as many distractions as you can. His mind was pre-occupied with his shoe being untied, I tied it, and he can now focus.
#4) Be fully “present”
Let go of how you think it should be. Let go of how it normally is during your presentations. Let go of making your goal the standing ovation. You can win over some tough audiences, but that should not be your goal.
In this case I knew I could not just give my normal stories or use the same structure that I do for adult audiences. Honestly, I had an idea for a plan, but I was very aware of being aware.
“Don’t try to be perfect, be present.”
There could be a magical way to connect that I may pick up on from their body language, a question or a reaction. If you are going through your normal presentation you may just miss a subtle clue on how you can connect with them.
#5) Resolve to Evolve
This unique opportunity had brilliance in it. Because there were five presentations one after another it gave me a chance to tweak each one based on feedback.
“Great speeches aren’t written, they are re-written.”
With each presentation I gave I gained invaluable feedback. The presentation improved each time. The more often you give a presentation the faster it should evolve. I had seventy-seven days back in 2001 between my regional speech competition and the World Championship. Because we were required to give a new speech at the next level, I sought out every opportunity to give it. I ended up giving my “Ouch!” speech twenty-two times in front of live audiences. Each time I gave it live, the more I internalized it as well. The last time I gave the speech it looked very different from the version 1.0 that I delivered. It evolved.
The same thing happened with the presentation for the kids. The fifth one was better than the first. I needed to give the first and make some mistakes to get to the fifth. Same with any presentation you are giving whether it is a full keynote or full day of training.
#6) Stories must be relatable
One of my concerns when speaking to youth is the fact that much of my humor requires more life experience in business. This got clarified early on in my presentation. When they saw the joke about Subway Sandwich shop they did not laugh at the punch line, they laughed when they heard I used to own the shop. They could “relate” and knew what that was. They could obviously not relate to the frustrations of owning a business. Business owners love that joke and laugh harder than when speaking to even non-business owner audiences.
#7) What do they like?
Though I’m not a fan of props, I know kids like props. So, to keep this audience’s interest I brought my Bose® Music system to show them what I used to do. I also brought my World Championship trophy. Some of the kids got so excited they ran up after and asked if they could touch it.
I also showed a quick video clip of me presenting to a large audience. What makes it interesting is not the video clip as much as the actual changing of the medium. Same is true with adults.
I was keenly focused on watching them and their body language as they watched. When they started to lose interest I quickly stopped the video clip and jumped back in front of them live. It did not take long, that’s for sure.
#8) Change of perspective
If you have heard me speak before, you have probably heard me say, that the true value of a presentation is the change of perspective in the audience member’s mind. So how do you offer a valuable change perspective for eleven year olds on career day? Great question. It took me a couple presentations to actually see where I could bring the most value.
When I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up the answers included mechanic, soldier, veterinarian, and lawyer. I knew that the perspective change that I had to leave needed to be simple and clear in order to be powerful. I’m hyper sensitive about bringing any negativity to a young person’s dream because of my own story. So, after they told me what they wanted to be, I asked them to all yell it again at the same time at me at the top of their lungs, with one change.
Just saying “with one change” made them curious. I let them wonder what that was for a few moments. I did this so it would add to the interest in the answer, thus making the answer more memorable.
I asked them, “Do you think people who are the best at what they do earn more or less than everyone else? “More!” they yelled. I asked if they thought it was easier or more difficult to find a job. “Easier!” they said.
Do you realize that people who are the best always earn the most and never have to search long for a job?” I had them all scream at once that they wanted to be the best mechanic, the best lawyer, and the best veterinarian.
When given the cue they all yelled at once. They got excited and yelled as loud as they could. Perfect. Exactly what I wanted. Their involvement, they said it and it was about them.
What lasting impression did it leave? I don’t know. In fact I have no real idea. What I do know is I did the best I could with the opportunity I was given. I tapped into my super friends who, over the years, had given me great insight. Even more importantly I tapped into the wisdom I gained from twenty years of stage time. I don’t believe I’m a great in front of that challenging audience, but I do believe I did the best I could given that situation.
Keep in mind we tend to beat ourselves up when it doesn’t go as well as it has in our past. We need to only compare each audience to one like it and ask ourselves, “what did I do right?” and, “what will I do differently next time?” You never know how important it can be to one person.
After the presentation, one of the teachers pulled me aside and said, “Wow, I never looked at it that way.” He was commenting on “being best.” And people who are the best are always in demand. Why do I bring that up? You never know who is listening. You never know who needs to hear your message. I assure you, no matter how challenging your audience is, even if it doesn’t seem like it goes well, if your intentions are to help the audience someone will receive your message.
What idea helped you the most? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Please post your thoughts and feelings on this blog.
Stage time, stage time, stage time,