How to Put Your Audience to Sleep

Has anybody ever fallen asleep in one of your presentations? I hope the answer is a definitive ‘No!’ But how could it happen?

That’s an easy question to answer. And the answer is this – forget that the audience are there and deliver the presentation to please yourself.

Let’s think about this for one moment… Why has the speaker been booked and what is the speaker’s number one priority?

Simple – It is to deliver a speech or presentation to the needs of that target audience.

The biggest mistake a speaker can make is not to prepare thoroughly, and a key aspect of that preparation is to understand who will be in the audience.

So, let’s assume that you’ve done your homework. You have a good handle on who’ll be in the audience, so far so good, but what else can we do to turn them off?

There are so many opportunities to build a communications barrier between you and them and I’ll be discussing some of them in this article.

Imagine a short wave radio. You know the one that whistles and crackles a lot. You can hear a voice delivering a message, but those whistles and crackles are breaking up the words, and although there is a message, there is also interference. The message is incomplete and sometimes unintelligible.

It’s the same in public speaking. If we can remove the interference then our message becomes so much stronger. A major problem is that we are not aware of the frequency or the nature of the interference that we introduce.

Lack of eye contact is a popular omission from a presentation. Or the speaker often feigns eye contact by actually looking over the top of people’s heads. The secret is to make everybody feel that you are speaking to them individually. Make them feel special. Be generous with your eye contact. Nobody will bite you for looking at them, but they might growl a little if you don’t. Just three of four seconds to each person and keep it moving to cover all of the audience segments.

Have you ever noticed a speaker swaying from side to side? Shifting weight from right to left and back again, rather like a pendulum. It is distracting and it also can have a hypnotic impact on the audience. Ten minutes of that and you’ve usually lost the audience. Equally, rocking backwards and forwards, especially on an old wooden floor can result in an incessant creaking like the mast on a 17th century war ship.

Playing with keys and coins in the pockets is another regular mistake. How can you make natural gestures when your hands are tucked away from view? And that jangling of the coins and the key ring is so annoying and distracting. For gentlemen in particular, it is to say the least… unsightly.

Every day, we all hear lots of unwanted and extraneous verbal material like – OK, right, y’know, um, ahh, init, yeh, wicked, now, so… But that’s normally delivered in every day chatter. However, when these words are used within a speech or presentation, they are magnified and distorted out of all proportion. The recommendation is simply – leave them out, the interference will be reduced and the message will carry greater clarity.

If you are delivering a technical presentation to a non-technical audience, please avoid jargon and acronyms. It is best to distribute a list of acronyms and their meanings, otherwise, you will lose the audience and mentally they will drift off. I hope that most people would know acronyms like NATO, MEP, NSPCC, PDSA and KBG, SLA, TLA, but even people who are mostly up to date with their essential reading will not know them all.

If you wear glasses, be aware that they can be a major distraction. It’s simple, either keep them on, or take them off. At college I used to have a lovely professor, but he was at that age, rather as I am now, where his eyes were beginning to fail him. He couldn’t see his students without the glasses and he couldn’t follow his notes without them. The answer again is simple – invest in a pair of (sometimes) quite expensive bifocals. They are an investment, not an expense.

In a one hour session, myself and fellow students once counted his glasses on/glasses off movements 78 times. Yes, that’s pretty distracting.

Finally, avoid ambiguity, unless you are doing it for comic effect.

Groucho Marx gave us the famous, ‘New York man shoots elephant in his pajamas.’

The key message is this – once you begin practicing your speech, just concentrate on removing those distractions from your presentations as they are barriers to communication. Ask a colleague to give you some objective feedback focusing on the distraction factor. Think of the short wave radio and keep that frequency of speech clarity clear.

How to put your audience to sleep– there are too many opportunities, but if you keep in mind the advice above it will reduce the snoring factor.

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