Presentations, Chekhov, Audiences and Getting the Timing Right?

In a first for Rock Your Talk, I am really pleased to be able to present a guest post by one of the most inspiring speaking coaches you will find. Iain Davidson has helped me to make big jumps in my public speaking. In this post, he talks about the vital importance of timing, preparing yourself and listening to your audience.

In one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, two of the protagonists fall deeply in love with each other. Unfortunately, not at the same time! Over four years pass between one proposal and the next but neither character is in the right frame of mind to:

•    Listen effectively – not only to the words but to the spaces between them
•    Process the message because of their internal dialogues – “this is how my future should look and it’s not with you right now”
•    Engage with the other person’s life, purpose and struggle – “not now please”
•    Imagine – both are focussed and distracted by their own personal events
•    Share a vision of the future – well, they do – but not at the same time!

It’s a heartbreaking story set against rising and falling fortunes and the rhythms of provincial life in 19thC Russia. But Chekhov’s ‘supertask’ is not the comedy and misfortunes of love – all his stories and plays deal with this in some way – but all our conversations (communication skills) and our timing (our audience’s receptive skills).

I think this is a lesson for all of us presenters, not only those with a broken heart!

In presentations, seminars and lectures we often stand and talk with the focus on our needs as a presenter. We rarely think deeply about our audience and their wishes, hopes and concerns. But we often assume that we know who our audience are and how they will react to our personal stories. We usually run a negative narrative (AKA: FEAR) about our audiences and so we stuff our ears, avert our eyes and start to impose our own values and fears, dragging the audience by the scruff of the neck, rather than gently persuading, by:

•    Ignoring the physical and psychological atmosphere – are they tired, hot, hungry, thirsty, worn out by the last appalling keynote speaker?
•    Worrying about questions that have not yet been voiced (and may never)
•    Worrying about our performance in front of our peers and our ‘credibility’
•    Over-preparing our slides, our arguments, our intellectual agendas
•    Under-preparing our emotional self, our creativity, our humanity; our response-ability!

Just as the course of love often rests on serendipity: being in the right place at the right time with the right message. So effective and engaging presentations connect with us all as being the right person, with a shared vision, at the right time.

Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them, so:

•    Listen to the audience – watch for the subtle signs-tap into the vibe in the room
•    Pause and think of yourself in the front row – what do you need right now?
•    Build in moments of reflection and dramatic silence to still the action
•    Share a vision of a future…together (hint, say ‘we’ a lot!)
•    Imagine a future life both intellectually and emotionally – ask questions!

Above all, please try not to be perfect, but natural. We respond to naturalness, to error, to the unexpected, to humour and humility. Realise too what you can and cannot control on stage and in life. In the country and western comedian Hank Wangford’s immortal words about love:

“If I wasn’t with you baby, well…I guess I would be with someone else”.

Good luck, stay focussed and don’t turn your presentation into a Russian novel!


Iain Davidson


About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in Audience, Guest Post, Preparation, Public Speaking. Bookmark the permalink.

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