Arriving back at your office after delivering a high stakes presentation that, if successful, will lead to a second meeting with a prospect who could potentially double your company’s annual revenue, you find your team anxiously huddled around the entrance. As soon as you walk through the front door, they pop the question, “well, how did it go?” Let’s freeze time right here and explore the two possible responses that are available to you.
Option number one is audience-focused or, as I like to call it, “photographic,” because it focuses externally. The other choice is you-focused or an “X-ray,” meaning it focuses internally. In this case, audience-focused responses (photographic) would include statements like, “they appeared to be engaged,” “people were feverishly taking notes” and “they asked good questions.” A you-focused response (X-ray), on the other hand, sounds something like “I managed not to mangle any words,” or “I felt good about it.” Both are important and worthy of consideration; however, the first response is key because it is usually the best indicator of what’s truly most important to the speaker.
Leading with a “you” response is undesirable because it subtly suggests that the speaker’s highest priority is simply surviving the presentation. In other words, it’s paramount that you avoid the embarrassment and reputational harm usually caused by a lack of preparation. Now, in the context of public speaking, unpacking the word survival means remaining unaffected in the face of some occurrence. I fully appreciate that your life (like everyone else’s) moves at 1,000 mph and you likely don’t have the requisite time to adequately prepare for a speech. I also understand that self-preservation is both important and instinctive but surely you think of your speech as more than a mere occurrence, right?
One of my clients’ most frequently expressed goals is a strong desire to connect with their audience in a manner that will inspire them to willfully engage. As soon as I hear that, I immediately turn the tables on them and put them in the shoes of that audience. That allows them to fully appreciate what they have to give up in exchange for the audience connection they seek. I say something like this:
“Imagine you were a person who was big on celebrating your birthday. In your mind, it is the best holiday of the year. Well, on this particular occasion . . .your milestone birthday. . . your closest companion, the one from whom you would be expecting the “best” gift, was extremely busy and didn’t put any time or thought into your birthday until the day of — and even then, they stopped by the gas station closest to your house and picked up a few scratch-off lottery tickets (that weren’t even winners). On top of that, they had the unmitigated gall to present the lottery tickets to you like they were the gift that you had been hinting at all month long. How would you feel?
Well, unfortunately, pressed for time, thoughtless and blindly arrogant, many speakers take on the role of your closest companion when it comes to their presentations. Your audience, on the other hand, feels exactly like you, deeply disappointed and thoroughly let down. In that scenario, how can you possibly expect to connect? For this reason, survival is not a strategy for successful speaking.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the preferred response to the age-old question, “so how did you do?” The audience-focused (photographic) response signals that the audience’s reaction and retention outweigh the speaker’s assessment of their personal performance. Again, I appreciate that the “you” response and the “audience response” are inextricably linked; however, the thing that separates the good from the great speakers is how closely they pay attention to details. In every instance, master speakers put their audiences first, giving priority to the photographic (external) response. This is also common sense when the stated goal of most presentations is to be both memorable and persuasive.
The truest measure of presentation success is how much of your content and concepts your audience retain when it is over. In both the development and delivery phases of their presentations, I recommend that clients prepare and perform as if their audiences will participate in an exit poll immediately after their presentations end. Would your audiences pass an exit exam?
From the days of grade school, we can all admit to preparing more intently when we knew the learning would be followed by a test. So, as we unfreeze time and you prepare to answer your team’s big question about the effectiveness of your high stakes presentation, all I’m asking is that, instead of starting with the word I, start with they.
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.