The audience was on the edge of their seat and within moments broke into thunderous applause. The speaker had so moved the audience that some had tears in their eyes while others rose to their feet screaming with appreciation. At that moment, the speaker and audience were in total harmony. All was bliss, unless you happened to be the next speaker.
This actually happened to a friend of mine, Bill Neale, coauthor of the Denison Organizational Culture Survey and an executive coach. Bill admitted that he did not rise to the challenge. But he learned from the experience, and here’s what he shared with me, along with additional tips I share with those I coach.
1. Read the moment. Speakers must always acknowledge the reality of the moment. If the audience is cheering like mad for the person who preceded you, join in the applause. The worst you can do is stand there and pretend no one is clapping. Neale sometimes makes a point of summarizing what the previous speaker has said. Another technique is to pick something memorable from the previous act and use it in your presentation. Such references demonstrate your acknowledgement as well as your savvy.
2. Break the ice. You need to find a way to connect with the audience. If the previous speaker was a big hit, comment on his performance. Or if the speaker bombed, compliment the effort. You may also make reference to what the audience is thinking or feeling at the moment, be it the weather, the economy, or the time of day. You may do something, anything, to break the ice so that attention shifts from who you are to what you have to say.
3. Know your stuff. Repeated use of “ah,” “um,” and “er” won’t cut it on the stump. It is perfectly fine to script your presentation in advance. A strong, confident reading is far preferable to stumbling through a presentation that you are struggling to remember or, worse, trying to wing without notes. Such a performance does not inspire confidence in the audience, especially in any higher-ups who may be watching.
4. Keep it rolling. The worst thing a speaker can do is drag out a presentation. So often, though, corporate speakers, as the saying goes, put “ten pounds of material into a one-pound bag.” One way to shorten a presentation is to cut the “job justification.” Relate the facts, not your career goals. Enhance them with anecdotes. And keep moving. Better a tight 10-minute presentation than a rambling 12-minute opus.
Of course, the unexpected can always occur during a presentation. I recall the story of a comedian working a corporate gig in an outdoor tent. (Yes, you will find such entertainers.) He was fine with being outside in an open tent on a hot day without air-conditioning. He was okay with the din of loud traffic whizzing past a short distance behind him. But the final straw was when the buffet table was set up center stage right before his microphone. No speaker can compete with a hungry stomach.
CEOs always make certain they never follow a big name act, be it a motivational speaker or an entertainer. But those farther down the hierarchy have no such luck; they must play the card the speaker organizer hands them
Following a terrific presentation can set you up for results. As Bill Neale says, it gives you an opportunity to leverage the energy of the room. Standing up in front of a live audience requires practice. The more you do it, the better and more comfortable you are likely to become. Keep one key point in mind. The audience wants you to succeed. No one likes to see a speaker “die” onstage. So be cool, be brief, and keep smiling. You will do just fine.
Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from The Leader’s Guide to Speaking with Presence: How to Project Confidence, Conviction, and Authority by John Baldoni. Copyright 2014, John Baldoni. Published by amacombooks.org