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Connecting With Your Audience: Presentation Skills

Apr 25, 2008
"By hook or by crook...connect, connect and connect with your audience." Tom Peters

The most successful presentations are made by those who connect with their audience. But what does that audience connection mean exactly? The American Heritage Dictionary defines "connection" as: "An association or relationship." In computer terms, a "connection" occurs when we join with others through a communication link.

Connecting with your audience is all of that. Communicating, associating, relating. Connecting with your audience involves them in the core of what you are saying in your presentation, in the ideas and information you are giving them. At a deeper level, you're not just giving a speech; you're creating a two-way interchange based on common interests.

When we connect things, we bind them together. When we connect with our audience, we bind them to us. If we really connect with them, they'll want to see and hear from us again. By doing this, we create the starting point of a relationship. When we feel a rapport with someone - -a person or a group -- a sense of trust and affinity begins to develop. Whatever your objective -- the information or points you want to get across -- you need to be in sync with the people you are trying to reach - your audience.

Let's look at some of the ways in which we can treat an audience so that they will trust us, feel a rapport with us and perhaps even want to hear more about our ideas or our products.

First, pay close attention to your audience. To get attention, you must give attention, so face your audience directly. This positive body language tells them you are open and receptive to them. Make them feel as if you're communicating with each individual. Talk to them the same way you'd talk to a friend. Make eye contact with people in the front row, the back, the middle, to build a sense of personal connection. Even in a large group, you can create an impression of speaking directly to each person by making direct eye contact here and there throughout the audience.

Tell your group a story. Actually, every presentation you give is a story. Your connection with the audience via a story or two means you're joining with them in a shared experience.

Dialogue with the audience non-verbally. Before starting your presentation, take a moment to stand silently in front of your audience. In this moment you can actually sense both the audience's mood and your own. Do this throughout your presentation. Great presenters adjust their presentation, if necessary, when they face this moment. What is it you're trying to say and what is the audience looking for? Listen. They're speaking to you in their own body language - laughter, silence, the buzz of disinterested murmuring. If you're not carefully tuned in to your audience, you are engaged in monologue. And in monologue there are no connections.

Call for audience involvement. How do you find out the audience's perspective? How do you get them to participate in a dialogue with you? Ask a question. Few things fire up an audience faster than questions. Rather than sitting and judging the speaker, when asked a question, audience members are charged to participate, their minds alive with possibilities. Will they know the answer? Will the question be challenged? How will the presenter respond to the answer?

Asking questions demonstrates your willingness to let go of narcissistic monologue and involve the audience in participatory dialogue. When you toss out questions to the audience, you interrupt your own closed-loop mental process and bring in diverse viewpoints. Asking questions is a subtle tool of persuasion. By simply asking a question, you can often make your point more powerfully than by hammering home assertion after assertion. The audience opens to your ideas as they articulate answers to your questions.

Find out if the audience is "getting it" before it's too late to redirect them. Asking questions checks your audience's understanding and retention, allowing you to adjust your presentation mid-stream, if necessary, to more effectively communicate.

Want to inject some tension? Demonstrate that you're interested in your audience? Ask questions, listen carefully to the answers and consider follow-up questions to create a dialogue. Start with open-ended questions addressed to the audience in general. As the presentation progresses, use specifically directed, close-ended questions. Avoiding boredom as well as checking comprehension and retention are key here.

Who is the target of your questions? It's pretty safe to address the audience in general. Anyone who raises their hand probably thinks they know the answer. They like attention and like to participate. However, when you call on someone who hasn't raised their hand, interest picks up. How will they respond? Will they know the answer?

Don't forget rhetorical questions, questions that require no answer, but are used for persuasive effect. When asking rhetorical questions, avoid eye contact, face away from the audience and lower your volume as though talking to yourself. (Don't forget to turn back and continue eye contact when you're done with the rhetorical questions.)

When you think audience energy might be flagging, or if you wish to orchestrate a collective experience, ask questions which require a physical response. Physical responses have maximum impact. A collective expression of audience viewpoint builds rapport, makes the experience more memorable and paves the way for higher receptivity to your message.

What do you do if and when the audience questions you? First of all, a question indicates that at least someone in the audience is interested in your subject, so - embrace it. Show respect for the question and the questioner. Step in toward the questioner and smile receptively. Pause before answering. Repeat the question, in your own words, to make sure you understand it correctly. Maintain dual eye contact - balancing eye contact with the questioner and with the rest of the audience. Answer the question, then confirm with, "Have I answered your question?"

When we connect with something, we bind it to us. Before you start feeding information to your audience, take in some information from them. They are always talking to you - non-verbally. Ask them questions and involve them in the process. Really listen to their questions; paraphrase them for understanding. To influence an audience, thereby getting your message to them, they must trust you. We all tend to trust people we feel connected to. In your presentations, create a sense of shared experience with your audience, so you'll both get something out of it.
About the Author
The Henderson Group trains and coaches business professionals in the art of communication and presentation through our experiential methodology. Since 1990, The Henderson Group has helped Fortune 500 companies worldwide improve employee productivity and business results through the development of communication skills. You can find us online at SpeakFearlessly.net and HendersonGroup.com or Attend A Workshop
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