Thursday, August 21, 2014

How to Connect with An Audience—It’s One of Your Most Important Leadership Skills

Guest post from Gary Genard:

Perhaps the biggest public speaking mistake emerging leaders make is to focus on delivering information. But a leader never gives a speech to convey content. Instead, the aim should be to influence—and often activate—listeners.

Your purpose, then, needs to inform all of your other choices when you speak.

In fact, things should be much easier for you if you think like that.  The dry delivery of information is seldom interesting. But the speaker who can put that information into context and reveal why it matters vitally to the audience—well, that speaker will likely be both more memorable and successful.

Connecting with Your Audience is Critical to Effective Communication Skills

To achieve such effective communication, you need to pay particular attention to the planning stage of your speech. Don’t be like the leader who says, “I know this stuff cold . . . I’ll just go out and talk about it.”

Your speech or presentation must have shape—in fact, you need to recognize that speaking is a strategic activity. Neglect to consider how your talk will be perceived in the minds of your listeners, and you’re almost certain to ramble. After all, to quote 19th-century novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, your job as a speaker is to “be brisk, be splendid, and be public.”

Let’s look at three ways you can do so in your preparation to speak as a leader, and one method of achieving that aim in performance.

How to Start a Speech with a Strong Introduction

The concept of primacy states that audiences will retain best what they experience first. That means you must think carefully about how to start your speech. How, in other words, will you get your audience on board immediately, and keep them there?

The way to do so is by using one of the rhetorical devices that presenters have been employing for centuries to grab their listeners’ attention. You know what many of these devices are, because you’ve heard them used often. They include a story, quotation, statistic, personal anecdote, case study or client testimonial, demonstration, visual, expert testimony, or even today’s headline or a musical cue. Remember, your audience and the speaking situation are the best guides to choosing an approach that will get you off to a strong start.

Ending with a Clincher Will Help Seal the Deal

And what about the other end of your speech? Actually, a similar communication component is taking place here—the concept of recency—that says that audiences strongly retain what they experience last.

In other words, you want what you say to continue to resonate in your listeners’ minds. If your speech is persuasive, you may want audience members to take some action. In either case, you need that effect to occur after you’ve finished speaking, sometimes long after. Will that happen if you have a perfunctory closing, or simply recap your message? Not a chance.

Here’s the good news about this part of your presentation: you can choose from the same rhetorical devices you consulted for your introduction. Not the same device; just the same list. If you opened with a quotation, consider ending with a story, etc. The idea is to conclude your remarks in a way that goes beyond mere content, to be vivid and memorable.

Leadership Qualities Must Include Rapport

Let’s say you’ve thought strategically about your speech and have come up with an effective grabber and a great clincher. You know that the actual body of your speech—the part between that opener and closer—is solid content and will take care of itself in keeping listeners interested.

Well, no, it probably won’t. If you want to actually lead audiences, you need to strongly establish rapport with them. That means keeping them interested throughout your talk, not just in the high-visibility Introduction and Conclusion.

To do so, you need to think consciously about that audience’s engagement. How will you take the information you’re ready to impart, and shape it in a way that will never let your listeners disengage? I once had a client who asked me to help her with a full-day training she was going to be conducting. It turns out she was planning to give three long PowerPoint presentations to make up the day. You can believe we started seriously exploring how she would build in engagement instead.

And Now for Performance: How’s Your Body Language?

If you proceed according to the above suggestions, you’ll be thinking in both strategic and tactical terms, and the chances are good you’ll have planned wonderfully. Once that’s done, you’re ready for the really fun part of your talk or presentation: the performance.

Here especially, the content will never be able to carry the full load of influence you’re aiming for with your audience. You need to tap into that vast reservoir of successful communication that depends upon nonverbal communication.

And that, in turn, means effective body language. Forget what you’ve heard about the “meaning” of specific gestures—for it’s the context of the body language an audience sees that matters. Think in terms of physical expression, i.e., using gestures that amplify, support, or strengthen what you’re saying. Consider your movement and position in your performance space as well, whether it’s the front of a boardroom or a large elevated stage, or something in between.

When you move, you are more visually interesting, you show that you can command a stage (as a leader must), and you actually improve your own thinking as you’re speaking. It’s one more way to connect with your audience and demonstrate your leadership skills.
About the author:
Gary Genard, PhD, is an actor, communications professor, and speech coach, as well as author of FEARLESS SPEAKING:  Beat Your Anxiety • Build Your Confidence • Change Your Life.  Creator of The Genard Method of performance-based public speaking training, he has spent the past fifteen years helping people from all walks of life cope with speech anxiety and stage fright.  Genard coaches executives and senior professionals in speaking for leadership, and has worked with Citigroup, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, the U.S. State Department and Congress, the United Nations, and many others. For more information visit

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