How Do You Make Your Audience Feel?

Movement for speakers

How do you move your audience? Move yourself. (photo of Zerafina conducting stretches for best voice usage in Brisbane)

I get a lot of requests to help people feel more confident speaking in front of an audience. We work together on everything from preparation to content and nonverbals (body language).

I was coaching a highly competent leader today, let’s call her Liz, and this was the biggest revelation for her:

It’s not all about you, it’s all about your audience.

Liz, like many others, felt self-conscious about presenting because:

I don’t like everyone looking at me

What are audiences looking for when they are ‘looking at’ you in a presentation?

They are looking for information that supports their understanding of what you’re saying. For example, if you tell them you are happy about something, it helps if you look and sound happy about it.

Ideally, your audience wants you to help them understand what you have to communicate. And they are hoping that you will keep them interested.

Presenting is like singing a song

I explained to Liz that when I first started singing when I was nineteen I was terrified of the audience. I remember my singing teacher, Andi Garing, coming to one of my early performances at a small bar, the Maluca Bar in Gertrude st, Fitzroy.

I have a clear mental image of my shoes; they were black, shiny brogues. I remember following all the swirls and dots in the patterns on the leather as the audience applauded, thinking:

If only they would stop clapping, I can get back to singing.

Wisely, my teacher suggested that I acknowledge the applause (something most people, even professional public speakers forget to do).

At nineteen, before a performance, I was so nervous, I would change my outfit about ten times before the gig. I’d get to the bar and have a drink of wine or vodka to try and settle my nerves. Then I’d be so worried about feeling too sleepy that I’d follow the drink up immediately with an espresso coffee. In retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly productive pre-performance routine, and did nothing to calm my nerves.

Performing was such an emotionally harrowing experience, that I put an enormous amount of research into finding ways to master the mental and physical tools for positive performance.

My brilliant singing teacher, Andi,  helped to put some of it in context:

It’s not about you when you sing a song; it’s about the audience. You are asking them if they have shared the experience you are singing about. ‘Do you know what this feels like? Have you been here too?’

Presenting is all about your audience

How do you want to make them feel?

After hearing the story, as many great marketers are aware, Liz looked relieved and said:

‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s what the audience wants to know.

The reason this was a relief for Liz, and a relief for me when I was nineteen is this:

It takes the pressure off you to present brilliantly, and to think mainly about the needs and interests of your audience instead.

What would be the opposite of self-consciousness? Consciousness of others? Perhaps lacking self-consciousness is all about thinking about others.

What can you do for your next presentation to consider how you want your audience to feel?

Top three tips for overcoming stage fright; get off the roller coaster

Roller coaster

Get off the roller coaster of stage-fright

Your heart beat pounds loud enough for your audience to hear (surely…), your mouth is giving the Simpson desert a run for its money in dryness, your hands sweat, or shake, or both.

No matter how confident we are with our presentations, there will be one time or another where the stakes are raised, and our adrenalin hijacks our entire system.

In a recent book, The Organized Mind; Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload the human brain is described as a house renovation from different eras, that don’t often don’t communicate well with other parts.

What that means for us as presenters, is that the same system that saves us from being run over by a car, or eaten by a large predator, engages when we just have to get up in front of an audience and present. This is not ideal….There are a few things we can do to help balance this reaction out.

  1. Hold a Power Pose for two minutes.

  2. Breathe evenly

  3. Use the interrogative: Can I do this?

    Hold a Power Pose for two minutes

    When we open up our body language and take up more space, our physiology reacts by changing the hormone levels in our body. Researchers from Harvard University found that standing in a power pose for two minutes (think Wonder Woman or Superman) raised the level of testosterone (gives us a sense of confidence and capability) and reduced the level of cortisol (the hormone responsible for our reactivity to stress. There is a full post, and links to the work of the researcher, Amy Cuddy, here.

Breathe Evenly

Try a breath that goes in for two, and out for two. This doesn’t stop our heartbeat from racing, but it does stop it from being erratic- which is enormously helpful. There is more information on this in the last ten minutes of this video on How to Hack Your Biology.

Can I do this?

When we use declarative statements like ‘I can do this’, it opens up our mind’s favoured activity, which is problem-solving. That means that we look for reasons to dispute this statement. When we ask, ‘Can I do this?’ and write a list of the reasons why we can, we use that activity to help us. There is more on this research in Daniel H. Pink’s book, To Sell Is Human.


Which of these strategies can you use this week to get off the roller coaster of stage fright?

Be Disruptive; Subvert the cliché to Stand Out

Subvert the cliché to stand out

Subvert the cliché to stand out

What are your guilty clichés?

Every industry has its clichés.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

He was as mad as hell.

Weak as a kitten, strong as an ox.

At the end of the day….

Clichés are shorthand

They show us that we have a shared language, and understanding.

They are grounded in shared experience and that means they are shared over time.

But time bleaches words of meaning. Words left open to the light from repeated exposure lose their vividness and colour.

The danger of the cliché is that we give our audience permission to zone-out.

When our audience can anticipate our trajectory, we give them permission to get comfortable. That’s not entirely a bad thing. If I turned up for a corporate presentation in my pyjamas, there would need to be a compelling reason, and it would need to be tied to a theme in order for it to make sense. If I didn’t, I would run the risk of being so disruptive that nobody would pay much attention to what I was saying.

That said, we so often run in a default mode of repeating the familiar that we lose the opportunity to be fresh.

“time passed like ivory beads on a black thread” – John Hawkes, Travesty

“a stately ice pudding of a cloud” – Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves

“[The] city lay curled up below like an animal infested with electric lights” – Angela Carter, Several Perceptions

We have so many tools at our disposal to engage an audience, why leave it to the poets and the writers to create something fresh?

Clichés are not just our words, but our actions

Must every presentation be at the front of the room?

Are we doing the same things all of our competitors are?

Think about the kinds of clichés that are in your industry, and avoid them….like the plague.

What are the clichés you are guilty of using the most?

What one clichéd way of doing things can you change this week?

How to be more likeable with (almost) no effort; Propinquity

Cat in the cannon of the HMAS Encounter, WW1

Show your face to be more likeable. Easier than being a cat in a cannon.

Proximity and Power

What if there was a way to be more likeable that didn’t take any special skills that was free and easy to implement?

What if you could be more likeable if you just show your face? There could be something useful in that.

Social psychologists have conducted studies on how proximity effects how we connect with others. Brothers, Ori and Rom Brafman detail some of these studies in their book, ‘Click; The Magic of Instant Connections – and how they can transform our work and relationships.’ The studies described below are resourced from this book, which is a fun and interesting read, and might help you understand what steps will help you build connections in life and work.

Propinquity; a powerful word for proximity

Here’s a quirky word to add to your vocabulary; propinquity. It’s the term social psychologists use when studying the effects of proximity on our relationships.

It is the area of research that describes why we are likely to have a connection with a neighbour (at work/in a dormitory, 40% likelihood) and that likelihood halves if they are two doors down.

Should you turn up to a meeting early?

One of the proposed reasons for this exponential growth in how proximity affects who we connect with, is spontaneous communication. These are the conversations about the weather, or everyday life that create cohesion in groups. Small talk is the ‘social glue’ that creates trust to communicate about bigger things.

Why would showing your face make better connections?

When we take the small talk out of the equation, even the people who we repeatedly see make an impact on how we perceive them. Psychologist call these ‘passive contacts’ and this is where we get the idea that just showing up and showing your face will make you more likeable.

 Email, phone or face-to-face?

Of all the choices, email is the weakest for creating connections.

One manager expressed her exasperation at having to constantly direct staff to pick up the phone, or walk around to a colleague’s desk and talk to them. This manager got it. If we want to communicate better, and create better connections, we need to talk to people. In fact, if you want to dehumanize someone, you’re more likely to kill someone through the push of a button, than if you have to do it face-to-face (but that’s another study). If you only communicate through email about important issues, it might be time to rethink the short-term convenience over the long-term impact.

What choices can you make this week that will make you a better communicator?

This five minute video has ‘Click‘ author, Rom Brafman explaining our likelihood of making connections and working with others based on proximity. It comes from a longer talk that explains how much better teams perform when they are more connected.

How to hook an audience; Don’t Bury the Lead

Don't bury the lead

Start with your most attention-grabbing information

Too many times we see a brilliant speakers with compelling content who have their audience listening politely for the first ten minutes. If we are lucky, we discover their brilliance, and end up taking photos of their powerpoint and scribbling down notes in the last ten minutes of the presentation. How can we avoid the same trap in our own presentations?

What if we could plan to ‘hook’ our audience from the outset?

There’s a term from journalism called ‘burying the lead (or lede)’ It’s when we put vital information in the second or third paragraph, rather than ‘leading’ with that information in the headline and first paragraph.

Our biggest trap is that we experience events in chronological order, and our default approach is to re-tell events in the same way we experienced them.

Don’t get stuck in chronology

Just because something happened first, it doesn’t make it the most interesting part of your presentation.

The lead is often referred to as the hook; what will hook your audience in?

Aristotle organised the elements of how we persuade in three categories: ethos, logos and pathos.

Ethos is our reputation, logos our logic, and pathos is the emotional content of our communication. The most likely place for your lead is to be anywhere you can find the pathos. Find the emotional moment in your presentation, and you are more likely to hook your audience.

What is the easiest way to identify you lead?

Summarise the information for your presentation, and ask yourself, ‘What is the most important, or compelling part?’ You can always circle back to how you got there, but if you want to get your audience’s attention from the beginning, start with the juiciest information.

It’s easy to lose perspective on what is most compelling about our own stories. We often think of all of the information as having equal importance. How can we get some perspective?

Ask a friend

  • Present for a friend and ask them to tell you what the most compelling part of the presentation was.
  • If there is a presentation you deliver repeatedly, ask a friend to sit in the audience. Get them to pay attention to when the audience is most interested.
  • Create a twitter friendly headline to tell your story. Having the discipline to fit your message into 140 characters can help you hone in on what is most important. If you want to take this a step further, create a message map.

Pacing is important when we are telling a story. The more we can plan how we will pace a presentation before we share it with others, the more we can take our audience with us from the very beginning.

When planning your next presentation, how will you identify your lead?