Over the weekend I took a tour of a university with my daughter. It was her first pick from all the schools she had gotten offers from. And before any decision can be made, I needed to learn more about it. We spent the day going from one hall to another listening to presentations about the courses, enrolment, facilities and living arrangements. It was informative and exhausting.
Every presentation was usually a team effort and we likely saw about 20 people speak over the course of the day. I was paying close attention to the information that was being given, but I couldn’t help taking in how each person did their part. There were university admin staff, professors and students sharing information with us. I started to really notice the difference in quality among all the speakers. What was most interesting was why they were so different.
You would assume that the professors would by far be best speakers, after all they do this every day all day long. But that wasn’t always the case. You would also believe that any students that were chosen to speak would likely be some of the best student speakers because they had been chosen by the university to present, and again that wasn’t always the case. When it came down to it there was one factor that separated the good from the bad.
The good ones were comfortable.
I found that there were many reasons the speakers were comfortable with what they were doing, but it really boiled down to having the ability to be in the moment and fully aware of everything going on. The comfortable speakers spoke in a calm and rhythmic cadence and had consistent control of what they were saying. They rarely tripped up or added fillers (ums and ahhs). They were able read the audience and notice reactions. They had almost no nervous ticks or behaviours. It all added up to a great presentation.
I believe that everyone who presented that day knew their stuff sufficiently. But I’m very sure that some knew their topics a lot better than others. Sometimes you can listen to someone giving a talk and know they are giving you 100% of their knowledge to only reach the minimum requirement of the presentation, while others are sharing just the tip of the iceberg of what they know, and it was impressive. There were clear signs as to why some of the most confident and best speakers were comfortable, and here they are.
Over the course of the day, my daughter and I had to walk to several different halls on campus in order to get the information we needed. And most of the time we arrived early to each new venue. It was interesting to note that the very best speakers either were at the door greeting everyone who arrived and introducing themselves. Or they engaged with people as they came in, inviting them to sit a little closer to the front or asking people about themselves and even wondering if you had any questions before they got started. This one on one engagement was really impressive and showed they were comfortable with speaking to anyone on a very personal level no matter who walked in the door. They were like a gracious host and you just walked into their living room. The less successful speakers of the day either sat in the front row with their backs to everyone that entered, or they clumped together in a small group, only speaking to each other and ignoring everyone who sat down until they were ready to begin. It’s safe to assume they were scared, and it showed up in the presentation.
When you watch a presentation and you realize they words coming out of someone mouth are not really their own, that they are either just bullets on the PowerPoint slide or a piece of paper they need to read from more often than they looked up. I saw this as a clear sign that the speaker is not comfortable about HOW they are going to present the information that they already know.
They are nervous because they fear they haven’t been able to memorize HOW to say it, or that it doesn’t flow out of them easily. One person did try to go off the script in their head but they shouldn’t have. Because while trying to add lib, they got confused and ended up getting caught in a loop and telling the same story over two and a half times before they realized what was wrong.
They didn’t tell it like they lived it, they tried to tell it the way they thought most people would want to hear it, and it likely wasn’t the way they would tell it to their friends. When someone give a stellar presentation, they’re able to bypass the idea of memorizing a script, because they lived this stuff and speak about it like it’s part of their life story. In fact, those presenters who did tell stories were far more entertaining.
The Posture and Positioning
We have all watched people talk on stage, particularly keynote speakers. There is this big stage that can hold a dance crew of fifty and there’s just one person standing in the center with a microphone.
All that space, what do they do?
Well depending on how comfortable the speakers were, they were they used it differently.
Both groups (The comfortable speakers and the uncomfortable ones) knew they couldn’t just stand still in the middle of the stage…you could if you wanted too, but if you have the room you should probably move around. Both groups did move around, one did it because they decided they had too. The other group did it because they wanted too, and used it to their advantage. The best of them made eye contact with several people and usually walked towards them when they did.
The comfortable speakers walked in directions with a sense of purpose as if they were walking towards someone they wanted to speak to personally. The others paced around in a pattern. If I could trace their footsteps in most cases, they created a “X” pattern on the floor and when they walked forward, they were usually looking down, and then were looking up when they walked backwards. And there were a lot of stutter steps which were in synch with any mispronunciations or mistakes that came out of their mouths. There was a huge contract between the two groups, and it shows that that even though both recognized that space needed to be used, only one used it properly and it made a big impact on the presentation.
This was awkward. There are people that know their stuff and can call on their knowledge at any time to answer a question. Then there are the ones that know their stuff but can’t answer because they didn’t understand the question. It’s strange that if both people know the same information, why would their ability to answer be different. Simple, it come down to what they hoped to achieve when answering questions. If you love what you do and you really want to help people, you are going to be very present when asked a question and no doubt your mind is searching for all the possible ways you can help them even before they are finished their question. When asking someone who is paranoid that you might ask them something they don’t know, their mind is on a completely different task and will give you a totally different result.
They are trying to figure out if the words coming out of your mouth are ringing any bells. They focused on qualifying your question, instead of formulating the answer. Instead of being concerned about helping you they are concerned about their knowledge base passing or failing. When someone really wants to help, you have their full attention and all the resources they have at their disposal.
There are some important takeaways from these four examples. But the overall message is the key, you have to be comfortable. It’s logical to say that being comfortable can create confidence, not the other way around. I see too many people trying to create synthetic confidence but it’s really obvious. The reason I say this is because I’m of the belief that you shouldn’t force yourself to get on the stage, video or any other platform until you’re comfortable. And what I mean is comfortable with what you know, how you want to share it and how you want to help people. If you have doubts about that, your mind might find other things to do when you are trying to do a presentation or even a sales pitch.
I went to a university this weekend about my daughter’s education and somehow, I ended up getting a really good lesson on what makes a good speaker.