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08.15.2014 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

Are You a Good Enough Speaker or a Great One?

I've been a professional speaker for a very long time, and as the market continues to shift and grow, I’m noticing some interesting things.

Almost anyone can be a speaker. If you have a message you want to share, and your lips move, you can be a speaker. But, not everyone can be a great speaker. Speaking is a craft that must be honed. Even after all these years, I still work at perfecting my craft.

As I come across more and more people wanting to enter the industry, I've also encountered many experts on the internet who are doing an amazing job of offering their products and services. The only problem is, I've come to note that some of them really don’t know how to offer their content in a way that is engaging.

For example, I recently signed up for a product line from a very successful content marketer. The problem is, his videos go on and on with him meandering in so many directions, I literally can’t watch them. I’m going to have to download the transcripts just to get the information, and I think that’s really a shame because this gentleman has a lot to offer. He just doesn't know how to deliver that content in a way that connects with his online listeners.

Here’s the deal. If you’re audience isn't engaged, it doesn't matter how great your products and services are. You will eventually frustrate your followers to the point where they check out and go away.

Whether you’re an executive, a speaker, a consultant, or a content marketer, speaking before a live audience or on camera, I've come to realize that three simple practices will help you better engage with your listeners.

Let me be so bold as to say that these practices may be what separates the good from the great.

1.         Authenticity

This may sound obvious, but I am shocked at how often people get up on the platform and offer up information that is not coming from a place of authenticity. It’s an easy trap to fall into when there is so much available content, and you’re trying to make an impact.

The easiest way to set yourself apart is to be your authentic self and deliver a message that is true for you. By this I mean you have a certain level of expertise around the topic, you are passionate about it, and you sincerely believe that your audience can benefit from what you have to share. In other words, it’s more about them than you.

Authenticity also includes how you prepare. Every speaker has a particular way they engage in the process of preparation. The point is to prepare. Flying by the seat of your pants just because you think you have a message is disrespectful to your audience.

I also find that speakers who over prepare—every line is memorized to coincide with a series of rehearsed physical gestures—well, frankly, I find them to be robotic, flat, and often not very engaging.

Why? Because how they look and sound is more important to them than what the audience hears and receives. Which brings me to my next practice.

2.         Direct Eye Contact

Another obvious point? Not really. I find that many unseasoned speakers talk at their audience rather than engage with them. They may think they are making eye contact because they are panning the audience, but they never actually connect with any one specific person. You have to connect with one before you can connect with many. Direct eye contact helps you do just that.

If you’re someone who has been taught to pan the audience, and you find that you’re not connecting with even one set of eyeballs (or the camera lens), you’re probably not as engaging as you think you are.

Your audience may be listening, at least temporarily, but they won’t feel your message, they won’t connect with you as a speaker, and worst of all, they won’t remember what you said.

In making direct eye contact, the audience knows that you are focused more on them than your own “performance”. Each person feels and believes that you are speaking directly to them on a personal level. Each hears, feels, and receives your message. This is where the transformation occurs.

It’s a slight distinction, but I promise you that if you are more intentional in this practice, you will find your audience more engaged than you ever imagined possible. This practice is also important because it helps you master the next and final practice.

3. Pacing

I remember taking a red eye from Hawaii one time to speak at an event in Florida. One of my colleagues had asked me to co-present with him, and we had put a lot of time into the presentation. He was to speak for the first hour, we would take a short break, and I would then follow up with my speech in the second hour.

I knew within the first 20 minutes of his speech that we were doomed. As I sat at the back of the room, I could see that the audience was bored and frustrated. My colleague was speaking about paradigm shifts. The only problem was he assumed that the audience knew nothing about his topic, and he made his point over and over and over again.

People began to doodle, scan their cell phone messages, one gentleman decided to nap. Still, my colleague failed to note that he had lost the audience.

The reason he missed the obvious was because he did not understand the element of pacing. Pacing is a very intentional aspect of speaking that helps you know when the audience has “got it” and it’s time to move on, or when they may need an additional explanation or story to help them fully grasp your point.

In this example, my colleague completed his hour long speech, he released the audience for a short 10-minute break, and I knew, as I had known since the beginning of our session that they would not be coming back.

Not one single person returned.

He was shocked and disappointed. I learned a great lesson, and went home to take a nap.

There is a lot of hard work that goes into crafting a great speech. Don’t be fooled by those who make it look easy. If they are any good at engaging an audience, it’s because they have been intentional in how they go about doing so. If you’re someone who wants to kick it up a notch, I’ll hope you’ll examine your own practices and see if there is room for improvement.

I know I’m always looking for better ways to hone my craft such that I make a difference for my audience. Isn't it, after all, why we speak in the first place?

I’d love to hear about any additional practices you feel may have helped you move from good to great. [reminder] 

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. August 15, 2014