I received a kind invitation to speak to a group of leaders in Toastmasters International in Pennsylvania. The subject was how to recruit in light of the changing economy and demographics of the membership and the potential membership. I hit the floor with high energy (I was feeling good, even after a 50-mile drive). I told the audience that, while my speech is normally about six steps to follow when facing and beating change -- "My "Six P's" -- I would deal with just three of them, given the short time I was allotted. Then I launched into my speech.
However, a problem common to all speakers came up. The audience just stared at me. They were not engaged. The presentation seemed to have no relevance to them. I was concerned because I had only 20 minutes to serve them, so it was imperative for me to solve this problem. Here are steps that I believe help in this situation.
1. DON'T PANIC. This is the first lesson to learn, and it's hard. I once heard an exchange between ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet partner, Charlie McCarthy, in which Bergen said in exasperation, "This is the most stupid conversation I have ever been involved in." McCarthy responded, "Well, I can account for only half of it." Remember that the audience is also responsible to some extent for the success of this session, so don't presume it is ALL your fault when there is a problem.
2. THINK OF HOW TO DEVIATE FROM YOUR PLANNED SCRIPT. Given the advice above, what I was saying was obviously not working. I had to find out what they wanted.
3. STEP CLOSER TO THE AUDIENCE. If you are physically nearer to your listeners, they are more apt to accept you. (However, watch the line between become more familiar and invading their personal space.) They are more likely to feel a kinship with you. This is a corollary to my advice that you should introduce yourself to your audience before the program starts, shaking hands and learning their names. (Yes, I did that on this day, but apparently it wasn't enough.)
4. ENGAGE IN A CONVERSATION. Ask rhetorical questions. Probe to find out what they want. Make them part of the event.
5. GO BACK TO "PLAN A" AT SOME POINT. You can't improvise the entire event. When you feel you have righted the ship, sail on your original course.
The talk continued, and I felt I maintained my dignity and composure in the end. I observed that subsequent speakers were having the same problems energizing the audience, so I felt more comfortable. Still, I received positive feedback in the end. I sold a few books, and later that day, I got a nice email from one of the attendees, who apologized for having to leave early. "Thanks for spending time with us today," he concluded. "Your presentation skills are exceptional ." Then Amazon contacted me afterward to say that there was a flurry of orders and my book is now of stock.
Hm, I guess it pulled it out in the end.
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