Have a Conversation

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When you give a presentation or a speech, do you sound like an author reading from your book or like a person having a conversation? If you chose the former, chances are you are not connecting with your audience as well as you could be.

Humans have conversations with each other. We don’t like to be talked at. We want to engage and to be engaged. It’s the same in a presentation. As audience members, we want to feel like the presenter is speaking with us, not reading to us or reciting memorized words that sound like they were written for an article or some scholarly work. We want to experience an engagement with the speaker.

When speaking, you can engage with the audience by using your body language, eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice. However, none of these aspects of delivery can truly build a personal connection with audience members if your content doesn’t speak to them in a human and personal way.

I have written numerous times about presenting the audience with subjects that concern them personally. I’ve suggested telling them the personal benefits they will receive from taking actions you are requesting of them. This is all crucial to creating that connection with them. Now think about how are you actually conveying that information.

If you are simply going to read words from a sheet — particularly words that were written like your best term paper — you don’t really need to be there. Skip the presentation and distribute the speech to the audience members.

If you want to speak conversationally to your audience, eliminate the written speech whether read or memorized. Write in the form of bullet points so you don’t set yourself up to speak too formally. Use minimal notes to keep you on track topic-wise, including any pertinent details you don’t want to forget. You will be more conversational since you will be speaking spontaneously in the way you usually talk. And very few of us speak like scholars in ordinary conversation. We use shorter sentences and simpler words. That is exactly how you want to talk to an audience. You can also engage them in “conversation” by asking them questions, even rhetorical ones, thus engaging them in thinking of a response.

Have a conversation with your audience and they will relate to you as a person. They will feel you are actually speaking to them, and be able to take in your content as they would not when you use a lot of long words and complicated sentences.

I suggest you practice your speech out loud — and more than once. If you can, tape yourself and listen back to it. Do you sound like you are telling a story at a dinner party or a family gathering? If so, you are on the right track.

Canadian speech coach and author Halina St. James writes about a fun way to evaluate yourself in her book “From Fears to Cheers. She calls it the “Hi Mom” test. She says to put the words “Hi Mom” in front of whatever you are going to say. If you sound the way you sound when talking to your mother, then it passes the test.

I’ve also heard that the average person speaks at a fifth or sixth grade level. Whether you practice your presentation while thinking of your mother or your middle schooler, speaking less formally is the way to go.

Until the next time…

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