Justin Locke

Presentation Skills 101

How to move away from trauma and perfect your skills.

February 7, 2011
by Justin Locke

Okay, so you are a CPA and not a public speaker. Even if you hate public speaking or are scared to death of it, every once in a while you are going to be called to stand up and address a group of people. If public speaking makes you nervous and uncomfortable, read on, this article is for you. I promise you, it’s not the usual advice.

Many people get nervous when they get up to speak in front of a group because they approach it like an amateur. There is a great deal of advice out there about how to be a more effective public speaker, but in my opinion, the vast majority of it is misguided. Most of this advice, simply stated, puts the focus on you. You’ll get advice on how to dress, how you should walk around a lot, what kinds of words you should use, what kind of fabric absorbs sweat most effectively, what kinds of breathing exercises you can do to cope with nervousness, how to disguise your “tics” and … my favorite, “what to do with your hands.”

Magic Secret

The magic secret to effective and even fun, public speaking is (drum roll please) …

Think About Your Audience, Not Yourself

You may believe you’re already doing that, but let’s make sure.

For most people, first public speaking experiences happen in school, where you had an audience that did not in any way reflect the average audience you speak to today. In school, you were consistently addressing your (emotionally immature) peer group, which of course made you very self-conscious. Also, you were usually forced to speak on a topic that a) wasn’t all that interesting to you or your audience and b) was one that you knew very little about and  finally, the entire exercise was being overseen by someone who was trained to point out your mistakes. There’s a word for such a stressful hostile environment such as this in which you were essentially powerless and where the likelihood of being laughed at, embarrassed or told you were doing something wrong was so extraordinarily high. It’s called trauma. So when you get up to speak today, it’s understandable that you might think that traumatic experience will re-manifest itself. You may see an audience through the lens of that memory and therefore as a potential threat to your well-being.

Moving Past This Horror

Most performance coaches, whether in the arts or public speaking, focus almost entirely on these traumatic memories. The primarily focus on how you can overcome the fear by somehow being “perfect.” They focus on polishing craft, for the purpose of protecting you from the possibility of being harshly judged by the oh-so ferocious audience.

Hardcore professionals, on the other hand, focus on something else altogether. The art of performance, including public speaking, is measured primarily by how well you perceive and connect with, your audience. If you are actively and accurately listening to and perceiving your audience, well then, simply stated, you can’t lose. In fact, once you start to think about just how vulnerable and powerless a typical audience member really is, you will wonder why you were ever afraid of them in the first place.

Now granted, if you’re speaking to 500 CPAs, it’s a good idea to triple-check all of your data, because a lot of them are going to notice right away if you made a mistake in your long division.

But even if you have 500 CPAs in an audience, we can still statistically assume that a fair number of them are new to the profession or about to retire and so these people all have various concerns, issues and worries of potential threats to their well-being. Some are sleep deprived and believe it or not, some might be afraid of you, because your knowledge might make them “feel stupid.” If you acknowledge those concerns and issues and demonstrate awareness of and sympathy for your audience’s personal problems, they are going to like you and if they like you, they will instantly ignore or forgive an occasional “um” or some bizarre gesticulation habit you may have with your hands.

Even better, if you are offering some rare useful nugget of information that will make their lives better, they will only see that and ignore everything else. Your audience is focused on themselves, not on you. Let them be the self-centered, self-conscious, eager for approval and acceptance, ashamed-of-their-imperfections and use that to your advantage.

The Magic of Audience Perception

Here’s one little magic “audience perception” trick I will share with you:

Speak to Individuals, Not to a Group

Never think of a crowd as a crowd and never speak to a crowd. Think of them as a group of unique individuals and, at any given moment, speak to and recognize the presence of, just one individual.

When I am speaking to an audience, my eyes dart all over the room constantly. I am making eye contact with as many people as I can, for a half a second at a time. Eye contact is a major element of recognition. If you don’t do it, instead of thinking you’re shy, your audience may perceive that you don’t like them. You are in an exalted position as the speaker and this is a higher social status. If you ignore people, they will feel slighted.

Granted, some people are a lot more fun to make eye contact with than others. You will quickly discover that there are certain faces in the audience that are just very open and smiling as they’re looking at you. It would be easy to talk only to them, but you should also work at making eye contact with the people who are looking a little less focused or unhappy or falling asleep. Come back to the smiling faces whenever you need to take a breath and become infused with their positive energy. But again, never speak to more than one person at a time. That way, you will never feel that your audience is bigger or stronger than you are. (By the way, 5,000 to 10,000 people are going to read this article, but the only person that concerns me is … you. One person. I am writing this just for you and you seem to be a reasonably open-minded and forgiving sort, so I am not particularly nervous about it. Get the picture now?)

Perceive the Audience’s Sense of Who They Are

Unless you are addressing the 101st Airborne, an audience is not an organized military unit capable of instant action with embedded leadership. A typical audience is a ragtag assemblage of strangers. It lacks a leader. You are that leader. The people in the audience do not see themselves as members of a group. They see themselves as lone individuals. They see the other people in the audience as strangers, just as you do, therefore slightly scary, just as you might. So they are relating to you, the presenter, as their best friend and they are doing so on a one-to-one basis. It is important that you see them as individual people needing your help and recognition, not as an organized group of potential antagonists. Again, it’s all about audience perception. When you get into their heads and see things from their perspective, it’s an incredibly powerful tool. When you become more conscious of them, you will immediately become less conscious of yourself. This is a wonderful thing.

Be Honest

Another trick is to lower your standards. Be honest with your audience about your uncertainty and limitations. By being “human,” you allow personal connection to occur. Amateur performers are all about concealing imperfection; professionals accept it and at advanced levels, even embellish it to gain audience sympathy. You will never be perfect and you will always make mistakes, especially if you are being totally open with your audience. No matter how good you are, there will always be one or two misanthropes in the crowd who just like to criticize. Be polite, but disregard them. There will also be others who will fall asleep. Don’t take it personally. Every large crowd has at least one person in it who flew in on the redeye or was up all night with a crying baby and once they sit down, they can’t stay awake even if they tried.

Don’t Imagine a Threat That Does Not Exist

When most people think about public speaking, they harken back to their school days, where they were unsure of their content and they were constantly being judged. That was then, this is now. Do not think of your audience as the judge. You’re the teacher now. In the real world, the average attendee at a conference or presentation has no interest in judging or critiquing you. They all have one single thought uppermost in their mind and that thought is, “Please, please, don’t let this presenter bore me to death for the next hour.” From their perspective, the standard for your performance is incredibly low. Far from preparing to disdainfully judge you, the majority of the people in the audience are rooting for you like mad. They want to have fun and they want you to do well. If you pay attention to them and don’t fall into a narcissistic state of unnecessary self-protection, you can’t lose. By the way, your audience is sympathetic to you by default, because they are just as afraid of public speaking as you are.

And a Final Note … It’s a Personal Relationship

Your relationship with your audience is a personal one and, as in any personal relationship, there’s a lot of give-and-take, there’s a lot of patience and forgiveness and it’s always good to try and see things from their point of view.

There are many other little tricks of “audience-ology,” as I like to call it, but audience perception is the main one. It’s even more important than your content. Your perceptual powers are vast. Aim them at your audience, not at your own imperfections. Keep that in mind and you’ll be a much better presenter and far less nervous.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© 2011 Justin Locke