This is not an easy post to write. If you are reading this blog to figure out how to impress people, this post will come as a shock. If, however, you are reading this hoping to learn more about improving as a speaker, read on.
The key to doing great talks is to keep yourself out of the centre. What do I mean?
Think about a typical talk. For this example, we can take an academic talk, but any talk would come to the same conclusion. Mostly, when people do academic talks, they have one thing in mind: to prove that they are a great expert about a subject and people should be listening to them. To do this, they compile data, find theory, construct arguments and at the end, they stand up front hoping beyond hope that they will look impressive.
What can often happen is a long way short of impressive. At best, the talk can be interesting or engaging but the speaker still comes over as someone with something to prove. You see it best in the question session after the talk. Often, those with “impress people” as their first objective can find themselves defensive when faced with criticism. They also run the risk of realising, all too late, that their talk has made less of a splash and more of an unnoticeable ripple. The audience, it seems, weren’t as impressed as the speaker hoped.
At the other end of the scale, “impress people” talks can go horribly wrong. Instead of clear communication, speakers can drop into obtuse terminology and self-righteous warbling. I should know; I’ve done my fair share of stinkers.
So, what’s the alternative? If you really want your talk to make an impact, think about helping your audience first and impressing them much later (if at all!). After all, any married couple can tell you that the only way to win a place in someone’s heart is to consistently put them first. Even if you just want to win space in their heads or in their wallets, taking the time to find out what your audience care about will create space for them to take an interest in what you are saying.
The key then is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Try to think why they are there and what they will want. What would they call success? Be bold enough to change your talk to concentrate on the bits that your audience need or want. Be crazy enough to interrupt your talk to ask questions and really listen to what is said.
The talks that people remember aren’t the ones that make the speaker look incredible but are the ones that have made an impact on the audience. They are the ones that have people going away thinking “I wish I had thought of that” or “so that’s how you solve that problem”. Do a talk like that and people will want to call you back for more.