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Engaging your audience is about connection, not performance

There’s no question about it: Mastering audience engagement is key to delivering a powerhouse presentation. And with attention spans shrinking (or perhaps evolving), it’s clear that you have seconds -- not minutes -- to win your audience over.

That’s a lot of pressure. But don’t panic.

The fear of losing the attention of your listeners might lead you to conclude that your only hope is to turn your talk into a dazzling performance. However, treating your presentation like a performance can be a distraction of its own, bringing audience focus to your performance and diminishing your message.

Having spent my career preparing business leaders to deliver high-stakes presentations, I can say with confidence that there are important differences between a captivating presentation and a captivating performance. Let’s look at these differences and four techniques for mastering audience engagement for your next presentation.

Why you shouldn’t think of a presentation as a performance

If you started reading this article with the mindset that “every presentation is a performance,” you’re not alone. Indeed, this belief has gained prominence in certain circles. I frequently hear presentations, talks or public speaking skills referred to as performances. And I cringe every time.

When I think of a performance, here’s what comes to mind:

  • An act of staging or presenting a play.
  • An actor inhabiting a character and making that “world” their own.
  • A person's rendering of a dramatic role, song or piece of music.
  • The right words, costumes, timing and choreography.

While there are some soft skills that you can learn from observing a fantastic performance, don't get stuck believing that is the standard for an effective business presentation, because it is not!

I use the word "performance" to describe a delivery style that is deliberate to the point that I focus on what the person is doing, rather than what they are saying. My suggestion: Leave the performances to the actresses and actors. Focus instead on making sure your message connects with your audience. So, what does this look like?

Precision versus intention 

The first major difference between a performance and a presentation is the goal. For actors, the goal is precision that comes in knowing the script cold. This is what it takes for an actress to deliver her lines flawlessly and to inhabit another world. Because the skill of performing lies in convincingly playing the role of someone else, it’s crucial to deliver the lines without getting hung up in any way.

In business, insisting on a high level of precision can create undue pressure and in fact may limit your ability to connect with your audience. When you present, your goal should be to make your intention clear and relatable for your audience. Adding impromptu comments about what’s happening in real time, as well as being agile enough to pivot as needed for the good of the audience, are marks of an effective speaker and leader.

To engage your audience, focus on the intention behind your message, rather than using the precise words or phrases you agonized over when crafting your remarks. Concentrating on intention will allow you to communicate with confidence, credibility and conviction.

Memorization versus spontaneity

Additionally, while memorization is a requirement for actors (in theatre, anyway, you must stick to the script since “word is king”), there’s no need or benefit to memorizing a business presentation. Actually, memorizing your talk can make you more nervous because you’ll be focused on recalling rather than relating.

While you certainly want to bring clarity and structure to your talk, you also want to leave room for spontaneity. When you are comfortable delivering your talk, your personality shines through and improvised thoughts come out naturally. These kinds of spontaneous thoughts are just as interesting -- or more interesting -- than recalling what you wrote.

When presenting, be yourself! Interact with your audience, learn what is important to them, and then offer little-known facts and anecdotes, including those that come to you in the moment. Reflecting your listeners’ needs and interests is a surefire way to engage them. Remember, your presentation is happening in real time -- take advantage of it!

Playing a character versus being your best self

Along with precision and memorization, an actor steps into a role. The difference between a ho-hum performance and a performance that sweeps you off your feet is how easy it is for you to forget the performer is acting. The truer he or she is to that character, the more we as audience members get swept away to another place or time and find the movie or play believable.

When you step up to speak, on the other hand, you want to succeed at being you. Instead of being transported to another place or time, you want your audience to be intensely present with you in the here and now.

Yes, you may feel nervous or unsure. It’s OK! This is scary stuff. You don’t need to worry about eliminating the nerves; in fact, that is probably not possible. Plus, you can learn to use this energy to your benefit. Conquer your nerves by connecting with your audience. One tip to do this is to imagine yourself having a conversation with a good friend. When you’re in your element, being your best self, the nerves will subside. 

Choreographed versus expressive

Okay, this last difference is one of my biggest pet peeves: speakers who are physically dramatic when they speak. Natural gestures enhance a presentation and emphasize key points. However, when gestures resemble a choreographed dance routine in the middle of a musical, you’ve crossed a line.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t rehearse your gestures along with your presentation. I’m suggesting that perfectly “timed” gestures can become a distraction. Despite what you may have been taught in your communications classes, you don’t need to abruptly hold up two fingers every time you say, “There are two points we need to cover.”

If I, as an audience member, spend more time noticing your gestures than listening to what you are saying, you are not getting the engagement you’re after.

Keep in mind that gestures, facial expressions and your posture need to be in sync with what you are saying. This is different and feels more natural than a choreographed moment that you need to recall and then perform. Remember: If you appear phony in any way, you’ll lose credibility in the eyes of your audience.

Looking at the differences between performing and presenting, I trust it is clear why it isn’t helpful to think of every presentation as a performance. To truly master audience engagement, focus on connection -- not perfection -- when you present.

 

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stakes presentations. She has over 30 years’ experience mentoring every level of professional, from newly minted executives up through the C-suite echelons and into the president’s cabinet. Today, she is a trusted consultant and speaker coach for companies ranging from early-stage startups to Fortune 500 companies. She has also developed a strong following at elite institutions such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as serving as a TEDx speaker coach.

Her first book, "Talk on Water:  Attaining the Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations," was a #1 Hot New Release in Business Communications on Amazon in 2018.  She is a regular contributor to SmartBrief, the leading digital publisher of targeted business news. Scotti holds a bachelor’s in speech communications and education and a master’s in organizational communications and business. Learn more at www.professionallyspeaking.net and www.professionallyspeakingblog.com.

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