9 Little Lessons on How to Inspire Your Audience – Instead of Losing the Crowd

I was at a major event for start-ups recently, featuring a range of speakers – politicians, broadcasters, millionaire entrepreneurs – talking to over 700 high-potential new companies and important investors. All were outstandingly successful people, clearly hugely smart and savvy, with insightful stories to tell. But I was fairly astonished to find how many times they undermined the insights they were providing and the ideas they were encouraging, by simple flaws in the delivery of their presentations. And this wasn’t just me as a performance professional nit-picking – I found myself noticing how at those moments, they lost the crowd, and had to take large chunks of time to regain their engagement.

People around me went from anticipation and excitement at the start of each speech – sitting forward in their chairs, phones slipped into their pockets, eyes bright and bodies still and focused – to deflating at the points of these mistakes – slumping back into their seats, rolling their necks, glum faces, reaching for their phones. I even saw one gentleman bent over with his head in his hands! And like any customer, an audience member takes much more time and effort to regain than to maintain.

So based on my experiences there, here are 9 super-simple techniques to apply to your next presentation, to ensure you don’t drop your crowd with easily avoidable blunders, but instead keep them elevated with your big ideas.

Be deliberate in making eye contact: A number of the speakers at the event read from scripted speeches, which is actually fine, as long as it is still lively and not just hiding behind the rostrum! But the greatest danger of reading from a prepared speech is that your eyes end up too much down on the page and too little up communicating with the audience. These scripted speakers I saw all did the same thing – they did their best to get their eyes up as much as they could … but they did it randomly, so it had no meaning, disconnecting the audience.

Be better: Bring your eyes up at the ends of lines.

For example, for a sentence like

“We are so excited to announce a new free training programme for Irish start-ups.”

Don’t bring your eyes up on “We” or “announce” but better to read the sentence, and you’ll find your eyes have taken in the last few words before you speak them, so you can bring your head up for those last few words in the line (“a new free training programme for Irish start-ups”) and look directly at one person as you say them. Then the end of the line will register, because you are choosing which words to share eye contact with the audience, therefore marking them as more impactful and important. On a printed speech, you can easily highlight the ends of lines – and you may find you want to re-order some sentences at the draft stage so the best bit is at the end.   

No cheap jokes: One speaker, who had wonderful, generous insights into empowering your staff, effectively lost his audience for the first 20% of his speech, because he opened with a terrible joke, about how his company also used to make breast augmentation products, which the female entrepreneurs in the room might want to use! I could hear the groans from the women all around me, and it took the speaker a long period of slowly winning the audience back with charm and thoughtful insight. So unnecessary! Yes, humour is great, but no lame jokes, particularly ones with potential to offend – they most often just backfire.

Be better: Tell funny stories from your own experience and observation, and more likely at your expense rather than at some other group’s.

Later that speaker told a lovely story about how he was forced to borrow money to expand his business at a crucial point … from one of his employees! It was self-deprecating and hilarious, and one of the keys to winning his audience back.

Don’t be a robot: Artificial Intelligence is improving every day, so we don’t need humans to be robots. One of the opening speakers was clearly a man with great passion for helping start-ups, and was outlining brilliant schemes that would provide highly empowering opportunities … but he read the speech out in a monotone drone. This of course became repetitive and the audience tuned out from the helpful information, due to the robotic delivery.

Be better: Bring your enthusiasm for your ideas to your tone.

When we talk about things passionately, we naturally bring a range of colours to how we describe things, a rainbow of ways of saying things (pace, pitch, pausing) that reflect our emotions. Look at each different topic in your speech, and see what each means to you. Let that genuine feeling come across. For example, talking about the year’s achievements, do you feel joyous pride? When you talk about challenges ahead, might you bring a tone of foreboding? When you reveal your proposed solutions, might you get excited? This contrast between different tones will be key to your story coming across, not just a robotic report.

Slide, don’t staple: One of the speakers was doing okay, until he turned a page of his script. It was stapled in the corner, and as he flipped it, he got tangled up in it, making an awful tearing noise on the mic, and distracting him out of his flow.

Be better: Slide your pages.

If you are at a rostrum, take advantage of it. Don’t staple your pages – rather paper-clip them if need be, than take it off before you go up – and as you finish a page, just slide it across. It’ll be much smoother, and is also much easier for your eyes tracking in moving from one page to the next. (Yes, they’ll end up out of order at the end of the speech, but that doesn’t matter by then!) If you have a script, don’t wrestle with it, be smooth.

Limit numbers to those that pop: One of the speakers was warm and gregarious, clearly a confident presenter, but that wasn’t enough to stop her speech being dulled out. Her presentation was packed with a litany of numbers – of numbers of people helped, of numbers of money spent, of numbers of percentage change. I’m sure all those numbers were true, relevant and important, but after a dozen, they all just blurred in my head, and I could see people all around with eyes glazing over.

Be better: Ask yourself, which numbers are “wow”– and why?

For a report, of course all those numbers should be included, but for a talk, you have to ask yourself: which numbers are going to be impactful to the listener? Which ones really strikingly evidence the big idea you are getting across? What are the “wow” numbers? If you could only include 3 numbers in your whole presentation, what would they be? When you limit numbers to the select few, then they can really pop in an undeniable way.

Include disaster in your stories: Many of the speakers shared real stories from their paths as examples, and these were often the best parts of their speeches. One thing jumped out at me. My level of interest increased when in the middle of relaying his or her glorious rise, the entrepreneur included a moment of disaster, when it seemed all their work was about to go kaput. One start-up star told a lovely story of lying on his brother’s couch abroad, and getting a number of calls in a row, each turning him down, and making his travel to three different foreign cities a waste of time. That vulnerability made me connect to him and see myself in him much more. Whereas tales of endless winning just seemed harder to absorb, no matter how smart the hacks and insights.

Be better: Include failure in your stories.

As you put together your presentation, keep an eye out for a story of a low ebb. When things fell apart, when a customer dropped you, when you failed an exam, when a rival cheated past you – a dark night of the soul when you truly doubted and considered quitting. Include it, not just the stories that make you look good. In any classical storytelling, this is quintessential. And quick tip: it often fits really well, storytelling-wise, right in the middle of your presentation, having talked before about your rise, and then continue on to what you learnt and how you applied it.

Don’t be upstaged – by a slide: The event was all mod-cons, and had huge screens, behind the speaker and around the venue, for displaying logos, interactive apps at work, and of course, slides. One speaker had a highly impressive set of slides, beautifully graphically designed, charting the course of his business journey. The only problem: each slide was massively detailed. Each one included graphs across multiple years, and all the key points about how the changes occurred each segment. The only issue: while he discussed segment 1, segments 2 and 3 were up on this huge screen behind him, naturally drawing our eyes to the next part of the story and distracting us from his voice and where he was at.

Be better: Break up your slides so they illuminate, not distract.

Essentially a slide should only be an image to make further sense of what you are saying – to convey what you are talking about in visual ways that make it clearer. So, key to that: you don’t want information about something else up behind you, while you are talking about another thing (e.g. graphs for the hard times for your business while you are recounting your initial success). It dilutes and distracts, rather than making things clearer. Be wary of complicated visual overviews. And only put a slide up after you’ve talked about that idea, that insight, that occurrence – and then only include information relevant to that moment. Only put on the blackboard what you are talking about right now. (And an aside, don’t include tiny numbers on your graphs. Even on huge screens, they are still often unreadable …)

Please –  junk the jargon: We all know that feeling at a party when you are talking to someone, and are suddenly dying to escape. They’re a bore. Why? Because they’re trying to impress you with all their insider knowledge about something. Rather than telling fascinating stories, they’re throwing out fancy, private words to make you feel like an outsider. It just comes across as insecure. The same applies to a lot of industry shorthand being flung around by a presenter – yes, most people in the room know what you mean … but there may well be 20% of the room who don’t know all those terms. Do you care? One presenter got so wrapped up in talking about “fintech” and “spinouts” and so forth, she may as well have been talking marine biology for all I followed her.

Be better: Push on your jargon.

Put pressure on it. Look at your presentation, and see if you spot any tech-words that somebody in the room might not recognize … and if so, simplify them. Or run through your presentation with someone not from your department – or a friend who is not in your industry. I promise, your generosity in using language a lay person can understand comes across much more impressively. Lose the jargon – so we don’t get lost in it.

Don’t begin with apology: I can’t believe I am going to mention this, as I thought people couldn’t fall into this trap anymore … but they still do. Understandably, out of fear, but again it’s unnecessary. The keynote speaker at this event – the main speaker! – started by saying he hadn’t done much of this public speaking lark and apologized if he was nervous. Nooooooo! I know you may be thinking that, but don’t say it! Ultimately you are undermining yourself, and unfairly asking the audience to bear the brunt. Of course, this speaker went on to deliver a largely warm, interesting and inspirational speech on his feet and without notes – he didn’t seem nervous or inexperienced at all. If he hadn’t said it, we would have started from goodwill and assumed he’d give us good stuff. So he needlessly sucked away his own power at the start, making us less likely to believe his early points.

Be better: Be brave – don’t apologize.

Even if you are nervous or feel like you might flop, which is quite normal, expand your courage. Suck it up. See what happens if you brave it. The audience is on your side, they know you’ll start off with some nervous energy, and settle into it. Apologizing is cheating. Be courageous instead.

So, avoid clouding your presentation with these common simple mistakes, and your genuine enthusiasm and insight will shine through – and that will inspire.

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