The Secret to Enhancing Your C-suite’s Public Persona

A lot of executives become perplexed when I tell them to scan the audience when delivering a presentation. It’s all part of the essential effort to assess feedback.

They see their main job as delivering content. The reason they neglect this real-time check is that they are so busy thinking of what they are going to say next, they fear they will lose their train of thought and blank out on stage.

There is no question that performance is important. Here is the crucial point: I contend that a speaker’s main job is to communicate, not to simply present. And communication is a two-way street. You must train yourself to communicate in both directions—sending and receiving.

Internalize to verbalize

We were born with two eyes to see with and two ears to hear with, but only one mouth to speak with. Use them in proportion. On stage, you are the one doing the talking. However, you must find ways to let communication flow to you, not just from you.

A well-rehearsed talk allows you to take heed of the signals you receive instead of focusing strictly on those you send. Yes, our old friend practice comes into play in assessing feedback.

Feedback holding signs

I will stress here again the need to internalize to verbalize. If you are comfortable with your remarks and have practiced sufficiently, you will have more opportunity to receive feedback from your listeners.

Practice your remarks so that you know when you will make certain gestures, when you will pause, when you will temporarily turn off your slides, when you will toss a question out to the assembled multitudes, and the like.

Knowing when you need to cue yourself to perform a specific action frees your mind to soak up any warning signs the audience is transmitting. Are they gazing off into space? Reading the newspaper? Tapping their toes? If you train yourself to zero in on these silent alarms, you will be better able to dispatch them quickly. The last thing you want is for other audience members to get attuned to this impatience. If you miss these signals and prove unable to deal with them right away, the boredom can spread like a virus, infecting everyone in attendance.

Shake It Up

If your feedback sensors witness any of these mannerisms while you speak, it is time to shake things up—right away. The longer you permit your listeners to stay disengaged, the more difficult it will be to pull them back to your train of thought.

What can you do? Use your nonverbal abilities to lively up the room. For example, take a few steps so the audience gets to redirect its gaze and shift ever so slightly in its seats. Raise your voice—not to a shout, but to a higher level that perks up your listeners’ ears. Toss in a pregnant pause to get them wondering what is coming next. Pull out a prop and demonstrate your point.

In addition, use your words more carefully. Punch up your language with a sparkling anecdote, an analogy, contrary assertion, or shocking claim. Or ask the audience a question. It can come in the form of a rhetorical question, or you can take a snap poll. Asking your audience to raise their hands and shout a loud “yes” or “no” will help to get their juices flowing again.

All of these techniques make you a more interesting speaker and help guide the focus off their daydreams and back to you.

Heed those Questions

Your audience Q&A session will also give you lots of feedback. When the audience poses in-depth questions centering on the main parts of your message, take that as a good sign they were paying attention as you spoke. They are asking for deeper details about the essence of your speech. That is a highly positive sign.

If, however, their questions largely focus on basics you thought you covered adequately during your introduction, it is time to assess whether your comments lacked clarity. Perhaps you failed to define key terms they needed for a baseline of understanding. Or your pre-program research might have proved faulty, leading you to aim over their heads.

Listen, too, for the tone in your questioners’ voices. Is it a respectful tone, one that indicates they are on your side? Or is there an edginess in their voices that could indicate they are impatient with your shortcomings or that you have more to do to convince them?

Factor feedback from the Q&A segment into your future presentations. As you practice for upcoming engagements, pay particular attention to any issues that lurked behind the questions.


Today’s post is based on an excerpt from the forthcoming second edition of Ed’s book The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations, due for publication in January 2019.

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