Channel your audience: It’s all about them, not about you

Bill Doll, our first guest blogger, is a D&E alumnus who teaches public speaking at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and is the author of  SPEAK, How to Talk to Classmates and Others, recently published by Oxford University Press. It is a brief essentials of public speaking for those of any age short on time but long on performance anxiety.  

Nervous before giving a speech?      

That’s good.  

A little anxiety revs the adrenalin so you’ll focus.

To be a little nervous means you care about this talk. Whether it’s a talk to shareholders, the media, your board of directors or a Senate subcommittee, your nerves are your body telling you this talk is important, not some blow-off moment you can wing your way through. 

There’s an old Broadway saying, “If you’re nervous before the show, you’ll do a good job.”  Uncertainty propels preparation – and makes for a better presentation. 

But wanting to do your best is not enough. Anxiety before a talk is also our body’s way of reminding us of a central truth – in fact, a paradox – of public speaking: all eyes and ears may be on you, you may even be the star drawing card that brought in the crowd, but it is they – your audience – who hold the power over your talk’s success. 

The reason, if you think about it, is hiding in plain sight: people believe people who connect with them. If you don’t formulate your message and deliver your talk in ways that this audience will understand and believe, words that will put you on their wave length, it’s just words and you are wasting their time and yours. 

Several Septembers ago, President Obama spoke to high school students in Northern Virginia about their upcoming school year. He cautioned them not “to spend every waking hour in front of the TV or the X-Box.”  If he had been speaking to a business audience about hard work, he probably wouldn’t mention TVs or X-Boxes, but he might have mentioned the threats of global competition.  TVs and X-Boxes, though, were right in tune with his 16 and 17 year old audience.

Similarly, in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the nation’s banks to deal with the financial crisis of the Great Depression, he explained in his first radio “Fireside Chat” that “When you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money into a safe deposit vault. It invests your money … to keep the wheels of industry and of agriculture turning around.” 

A simple, reassuring explanation of banking was one intended, he said, for “the overwhelming majority” of Americans who use banks, not for the “comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking.” Let the words reflect the audience. And we still remember FDR’s talk.

Actually, this notion of channeling your audience sails us right back 2,500 years to the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s codification of the tools of persuasion all speakers employ. There are only three tools, Aristotle said, and the third was the key.

Logos, or reason and evidence, is the first. Pathos, or language that stirs emotions – beloved of politicians and shampoo commercials – is the second. And the third is ethos, a complicated notion that we translate as “credibility.”

For Aristotle, credibility meant the audience trusted you. More than that, they took you as one of them. The credible speaker, in fact, “dwelled” – the root word of “ethos” – with them, was of the same house. 

Powerful stuff, this audience bonding.  You are in-tune with them – and it’s the secret to success when you are all alone on stage with the mic in the limelight.

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