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The Key to Being an Effective Public Speaker

Listen to your audience.

My entrepreneurial journey has included a lot of public speaking over the past year. And as I have tested and tried different approaches I have learned one key rule to success: don’t assume you know what the audience wants to hear.

Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and dared to ask the speaker a question somewhere in the middle of their talk? The result is often an awkward pause, and then an answer to hold on 6 or 8 more slides when they will be coming to that. In this case the speaker is presuming that you want to learn in the way they have organized the information. That’s a mistake. As a listener and learner, I turn off every time.

My speaking this year has included a lot of work with Vistage Peer groups, which typically consist of 12 – 18 CEO’s of small and medium sized businesses. These small groups can be a particularly tough crowd. The members pay a lot of money to be there, their time is important to them, and they don’t want it squandered.

As a speaker preparing for this audience, the natural reaction is to prepare for every minute and be well orchestrated. Maybe it’ a slide for every two minutes.

I tried that the first few times, and I fell on my face. And then I realized that I had to stretch into the way that I want to learn, by setting up exercises for the audience, and then discuss their situations, and digging deeply into what they want to learn.

No slides. A workshop with a few exercises on a handful of pages. And a discussion.

One time, I was scheduled to present for an hour, we worked for three and a half hours. Once, a three-hour presentation only went for two. But when the audience was done, and had gotten everything they needed. It worked.

As I learned this style, I have tried it in bigger crowds at conferences with an audience of 100 or so folks that don’t know each other. Here I might set the stage with a few warm up questions, and then the balance of the time is open to Q & A.

In a typical hour presentation, a presenter will talk for 50 minutes, and then leave ten minutes for questions. Recently I have been talking for ten, and leaving 50 for questions. Guess what – most people seem to love it. And everyone is learning from everyone else, not just me.

Getting ready to make your next presentation. Try to dump the PowerPoint. Listen to the crowds. The results might surprise you, and them.

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