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How to Engage an Audience – Lessons from Professional Speakers

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The annual Professional Speaking Association (PSA) Mega Conference is the event of the year for professional speakers in the UK and this year it was held in Nottingham from 7-9 October. It’s where members come together for three days to listen, learn, share and network with fellow speakers and trainers.

The PSA aims to help members to ‘speak more, speak better’ so the sessions were a mixture of tips on how to grow a speaking business and how to further develop speaking skills.

Whilst I have a notepad filled with brilliant takeaway messages from all of the speakers, the purpose of this post is to highlight some of the lessons we can learn from them about engaging an audience. Some are tips directly from their mouths, some are from my observations about the way the delivered their message.

1. Dress Like the Speaker

Jennifer De St Georges was one of the judges of the prestigious Speaker Factor competition and after the semi-final she mentioned that the contestants needed to consider how they were dressed. In her opinion, if they are aiming to become professional speakers they will need to dress appropriately for their audience and in a way that everyone knows they are the speaker. The following day at the finals it was clear who was dressed to win; some speakers really stood out and made the others look under dressed. Jennifer suggested that to gain respect from your audience and be seen as the expert, you need to dress accordingly (and as she says “If you’re not the expert, why are you the speaker?”)

2. Use Props

Props can really enhance your audience’s understanding of your message and over the weekend I picked out three great examples of how to incorporate props for maximum impact.

The first one was a sight gag that appealed to my sense of humour during the Comedy Night. Jason Butler had a couple of boxes wrapped up like presents; it went with line “I was told that as a speaker I need to have stage presents!” A great gag for an audience of professional speakers for whom good stage presence is vital.

Whilst sharing a story about Celebrity Service, Geoff Ramm talked about how he handed over his money to purchase something for his daughter’s birthday. The way he reluctantly reached into his pocket and pulled out a £20 note demonstrated exactly how he was feeling about parting with his cash; this would not have been as effective without the cash in his hand and demonstrated the benefit of showing over telling.

My favourite use of a prop was in Steve Judge’s Speaker Factor competition speech. Steve talked about an accident he had been in which caused him to lose a chunk of his tibia bone. He had a replica bone which he held up and snapped in two places to demonstrate where the bone had broken and then he dropped the broken piece into a metal bin. This prop not only worked visually but the sound of the snapping bone and the clunk as it landed in the metal bin really brought home the seriousness of the situation.

3. Memorable Phrases and Tweetable quotes

Whatever your topic, it’s always a good idea to include simple messages that are easy to remember and easy to share, especially if your audience is encouraged to post on social media such as Twitter. Here is a selection of my favourites from the weekend:

– If you can’t close enough sales, you’ll have to close your speaking business – Simon Hazeldine
– You are your own CEO, Chief Energy Officer – Celynn Erasmus
– If you want to increase the commas in your bank account, decrease the commas in your expertise – Dawnna St Louis
– You don’t own your brand, it lives in the minds of other people – David Avrin
– You have to deactivate to reactivate – Celynn Erasmus
– Don’t do it better, don’t do it cheaper, do it different. Stand out – Katie Bulmer-Cooke

Katie also stood out by using her own very appropriate made up word; she said she was going to share her “Kate-aways” to help make our businesses much fitter and stronger. A catchy phrase like this is a simple way to be noticed and remembered. Another person who does this very well is previous a PSA Mega Conference speaker from the USA, Patricia Fripp, who delights audiences with her “Frippisms”.

4. Storytelling

It has long been known that storytelling is one of the best ways to convey a message and ensure it sticks. Throughout the conference there were numerous examples of great storytelling including talks from Peter Roper, Alan Stevens, Tiffany Kemp, Katie Bulmer-Cooke, Andy Lopata and many more.

But my favourite example of storytelling, and in fact the highlight of the entire conference for me was in Geoff Ramm’s talk on Celebrity Service. Entertaining and engaging, his attention to detail, vocal variety and brilliant stagecraft brought his crystal clear message to life. He not only used the entire stage well to ensure he connected with everyone, but his expressive face and body language drew the audience in so we couldn’t help but be captivated. For a masterclass in storytelling, I highly recommend you spend 30 minutes watching this talk (after you’ve finished reading this post of course!)

5. Authenticity

The most appealing and engaging speakers are those that are true to themselves, who are comfortable in their skin and speak from the heart. Whilst they may learn from others, they don’t try to mimic or copy other speakers.

When looking to improve our public speaking we can often get hung up on the ‘rules’ for crafting the perfect phrases, focusing on where to stand, choreographing when to move and choosing which gesture will have maximum impact.

But more important is the ability to connect with an audience just the way you are. When on stage you need to bring an energy that is slightly bigger and better version of yourself in order to connect with your audience, but you still need to be yourself.

We were fortunate to witness a number of different speaking styles throughout the conference; the American speakers tended to have a larger and louder way of communicating their message whilst the British speakers were just as capable of engaging an audience even though their style was often very different. The importance of being true to your own style was is was highlighted by Andy Rogers, last year’s Speaker Factor winner, whose quiet demeanour and natural storytelling had us spellbound and the refreshing approach of Katie Bulmer Cooke who chatted away in her strong Northern accent just like we were having a conversation over a coffee.

Peter Brandl, a speaker from Germany challenged us in his keynote by asking “Are you willing to remove the mask on stage?” He urged us to stop trying to be the person we want to be seen as; it might protect us but it also protects our emotions from coming out and therefore stops us revealing our true self.

Authenticity is so important in speaking that Lee Jackson, the new President of The Professional Speaking Association announced that it is his theme for his PSA presidential year.

So when you are preparing for your next speech or presentation, remember to consider these 5 tips around image, props, memorable phrases, storytelling and authenticity to ensure you engage your audience like the professionals.

For more information about the Professional Speaking Association go to www.thepsa.co.uk. If you’re based in Scotland, why not come along to our next event in Edinburgh on Thursday 10 November – click here for details.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction. She is a multi-award winning speaker, trainer and coach and the founder of Grow Your Potential, which specialises in supporting individuals and organisations to design and deliver winning pitches and presentations.

Mel’s background includes over 20 years’ experience in public, private and not-for-profit organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom and she has also worked as an actor, presenter and singer. To find out more about Mel’s talks and programmes go to www.grow-your-potential.com or for public speaking and pitching tips follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_

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What to Wear When Presenting

What to wear when presenting

Whether we like it or not, people are making judgements about us from the moment they first see us. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.  In fact research undertaken by Michael Solomon at the Graduate School of Business, New York University, found that people make 11 judgements about you in the first 7 seconds. These include whether they perceive you to be credible, trustworthy, honest, believable and competent. Therefore, when we are speaking in public it is crucial to think about the image we are presenting as this can have an effect on how the audience perceives us and receives our message.

So what are the considerations?

Firstly, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where is the presentation taking place?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What is the occasion?
  • Who will be in the audience?
  • What are their expectations?
  • What is the dress code?
  • What image are you aiming to project?

Getting your outfit right can be tricky so I asked several colour and image experts for some tips. In a future post I will talk specifically about colour, but for now let’s focus on clothing and style.

Always be occasion-appropriate a.k.a. know your audience

Karen Finlayson from Colour Elements says “Your appearance is your non-verbal greeting – just as we might greet a person in their teens differently from a retired person, similarly it’s beneficial to consider modifying your appearance for different audiences.  The more easily people relate to you, the less distracted they will be by your appearance.”

Choosing an outfit that is appropriate to the occasion and the audience is crucial to establishing your authority and credibility. If everyone else is in a suit and you turn up in jeans and a t-shirt you will have to work harder to convince your audience why they should listen to you.

Don’t stand out from the crowd – just make sure you look different

In order for people to focus on what you’re saying the clothes you wear should be similar to the clothes that audience members would wear.  However, Karen recommends that there should always be an unexpected element that keeps the audience alert and helps make you memorable.  She suggests, “Rather than hinting at an out-and-out rebel this might simply be the use of a contrasting colour in a tie or a piece of jewellery with personality.”

Judith Campbell from Feel Brand New says it’s important to know your own style and develop how to look like the best version of yourself. Repetition of what works for you can become a very distinctive style e.g. same cut of trouser, always wearing a scarf, creative facial hair, red lipstick. She agrees with Karen that it is important to inject pizzazz into your wardrobe, “You don’t have to reinvent yourself, just learn how to add colour, print, texture that fits with your style personality.”

I recently attended an event at which Claire Boyles from Success Matters spoke about finding your business voice. Claire suggests keeping your outfit in line with your branding. For example she is known for wearing turquoise, a colour that features in her logo and business branding. Regardless of the style of clothing she wears, this consistency and repetition of colour means that whenever people see the colour turquoise they think of her. What better way to be memorable!

Your fabrics of choice are your hidden weapon

I have had the experience of wearing a flimsy cotton frock as a costume for a singing performance that I was particularly nervous about. Normally I’m pretty good at hiding any nerves I’m feeling or using them to my advantage to enhance my performance. However, during this particular performance my legs were trembling so badly that my dress was shaking! I’ve seen other examples of this as well so I always suggest that my clients choose a heavier fabric and a style that won’t show any quivering! Another tip is to choose fabrics that don’t crease where possible, or if they are likely to crease and you are travelling, it is a good idea to bring your outfit to change into when you arrive.

Karen also advises to choose your fabric with care. “Smooth fabrics will always look more authoritative, they indicate that you are more in control.  Textured fabrics look more casual and can look downright untidy.  Light reflective fabrics are often used for evening wear so be careful in your use of these fabrics for business – a small amount can make an outfit look sharper but larger amounts can look inappropriate for daytime public speaking.  With those points in mind consider the timing of your public speaking engagement and your audience.  People who work in services such as counselling will often feel more relaxed listening to a speaker who looks more relaxed (i.e. wearing tactile textures) whereas an audience from the finance sector will usually prefer to listen to a speaker who exudes control through form fitting shapes and smooth fabrics.”

Look good, feel good

Judith Campbell says 91 per cent of women agreed with the statement, “When I look good, I feel good.”  For many of us clothes are so much more than something to cover our modesty and keep us warm.  They can be confidence-boosters with transformative powers.  You probably have garments and accessories that make you feel great such as a favourite pair of high heels or a lucky tie. Just putting on these garments can help to change your posture and the way you carry yourself, and even your change your behaviour to enhance your performance.

It’s also important to choose an outfit that fits and flatters so that you feel great. Janice Bruce, Design Consultant for Home and Fashion, suggests dressing to suit your body type; you can minimise areas by selecting a style that skims your body rather than hugs it and by clever use of colour e.g. dark colours can sometimes be better on top is you are disguising a larger bust size, similarly for the bottom if a larger hip size.

Importantly, your outfit should be clean and well ironed with no missing buttons or falling hemlines and your shoes should be polished. Shoes with rubber soles are better if you are on a wooden floor as they make less noise when you move around. Think about your overall look including make-up, hairstyle and carefully selected accessories (avoid jewellery that jangles).

Ultimately though, it’s about ensuring that whatever you choose to wear is appropriate, comfortable, allows you to move well and makes you feel great.

What do you think? Have you seen any presentations in which the speaker’s outfit and image were spot on? What about those who got it completely wrong? How did it impact on their presentation? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

A special thanks to Karen Finlayson, Judith Campbell and Janice Bruce for their contributions to this post. Next time I’ll focus specifically on how you can use colour in your outfit to enhance your presentation. In the meantime, if you would like more hints and tips about public speaking, head over to www.grow-your-potential.com or follow me on Twitter @Grow_Potential