Qualities of a Great Speaker – Connecting with the Audience

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The last speaking quality I want to cover in my series on what makes a quality public speaker is the ability of a speaker to connect with their audience. There are thousands of ways to do this, and how a speaker goes about it will often be dictated by a combination of their content (as is often the case when discussing tragedies) or based on their personality (the class clown syndrome is a common approach for this).

A key mistake that speakers often make is in ‘preaching to the choir.’ If they assume their audience is already on the same page that they are when it comes to why they should care about the speaker’s topic, then the speaker misses the opportunity to get other people on their bandwagon. I think this is a particular risk at professional conferences/events, because speakers will often assume that all (or at least most) of the audience is coming from the same point of view as they are, so they don’t need to spend a lot of time or effort getting everyone on the same page.

Particularly in the interactive/web space, this is a fallacy. The large-scale web world covers a lot of very different disciplines that attract radically different personality types. A typical event at a conference like SXSW or Web 2.0 Expo will have audience members who are both executives and individual contributors, tech staff as well as marketing people, Baby Boomers and Gen Y, early adopters and ludite-inclined pragmatists, small company startup entrepreneurs and large enterprise, career professionals. The gulf among audience members is huge and should never be neglected. Even at smaller, more specialized conferences like PubCon South the array of specialities in the audience was very broad. Neglecting to take this into account when speaking is a mistake that several speakers continue to make.

As with my assessment of the first two qualities, Educational Value and Authenticity, here are the list of the speakers I saw recently and how I’d rate them when it comes to their ability to connect with an audience.

Charlene Li

Charlene Li

Connection with the Audience: C

Details:There is probably some irony to the fact that, at SXSW, Charlene Li’s discussion about the future of social networks (that they’d be ubiquitous, so that they’re impact would be more connective and meaningful) really kind of missed the mark. There were examples she used that illustrated her point, but none of them were particularly meaningful ways for her to connect to the audience, and I think this is for two reasons: the aforementioned authenticity problem, and the fact that most of what she was saying was very strategic, and therefore abstract. While that is what she is hired to do on a daily basis, again, it made her sound like she was talking to an Executive Committee, not an audience of practitioners, fans and people looking to learn. Much of what she was saying was too high level and far removed from people’s immediate reality to be anything more personal than a moderately interesting intellectual exercise.

Again, her panel with Peter Kim and Jeremiah Owyang at Expo was the opposite. Because their topic was specifically about the ways in which organizations are unsuccessful in their attempts to implement social networking, the entire discussion was much more specific and tactical. It was therefore much more relatable for the audience. And people came away from it with a much stronger sense of value, and a much clearer sense of how the topic could relate to their daily lives. So, again, Charlene’s score is a mid-point between two opposite extremes.

Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson

Connection with the Audience: C

Details:Chris Anderson seemed to be relying on Guy to help him find a way to connect with the audience (or, maybe more accurately, was simply relying on Guy to be the one to connect with the audience). Chris seemed to fall victim to his intellect and his discomfort with the spotlight, and it seemed that whatever bit of audience-connecting he accomplished was mostly due to circumstance. Because much of his point was based on economic theory and a lot abstract philosophy being manifested in our current Industrial-to-Information Age transition, if this isn’t a topic that someone already cared a lot about, by himself, Anderson probably wasn’t enough to get them interested. Kawasaki’s influence and audience participation provided whatever degree of connection to the audience this talk ultimately managed.

Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan

Connection with the Audience: B

Details:Chris Brogan’s ability to connect with the audience is definitely enhanced by his level of authenticity. But, from what I saw, in most cases it is facilitated most by responding to specific audience questions. On his own, Brogan is much like Kawasaki in that he is authentic and entertaining, but will spend more time telling stories that make you laugh, than with connecting to an audience’s personal experience much beyond than that. However, given the opportunity to do some Q&A, he does make up for that a bit.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

Connection with the Audience: A

Details:Gary Vaynerchuk is all about enthusiastically connecting with his audience. When the moderator for his talk made it clear that the one hour he was on stage was basically going to be nothing but Q&A with the audience, Gary was visibly excited and eagerly jumped in to get the ball rolling. Every answer he gave was enthusiastic, personal and (often) disarmingly honest. When one woman asked if she could have a hug, he bounded off the stage, and gave her a bear hug that lifted her off the ground. Gary’s highly social nature made every single person who asked him a question feel like they were the center of the conversation. Every speaker who wants to understand how to better engage an audience should see Gary speak to a large crowd at least once, because it’s a very compelling case study for the value of connecting with the audience.

Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

Connection with the Audience: B

Details:Guy Kawasaki walks the line a bit at times between engaging the audience very directly, and merely talking to them. It’s an interesting dance to watch, and one that he can probably only get away with because he is funny and charming and authentic enough to avoid having it come across as unpleasantly arrogant. On the other hand, Guy is also probably one of the more adaptive speakers I saw all conference season, and he’s very able to shift gears mid-speach if it proves necessary. He was also the only one I saw who went from interviewee to interviewer, which he handled exceptionally well (though, as interviewer he still dominated the conversation a bit at times; though I do think it was situation-appropriate, given that it seemed to be part of what Chris Anderson needed in order to keep things flowing fairly comfortably). So I’d say that Guy gets a decent grade when it comes to connecting with an audience, because he clearly knows how to do it — it seems to be just a matter of whether or not he feels like it at the time.

Larry Lessig

Larry Lessig

Connection with the Audience: D

Details:Unfortunately Larry Lessig’s authenticity did not help him much when it came to connecting with his audience. It could have — and in another format, it may have been easier for him to do — but in the end, because he didn’t find a way to truly get the audience to understand where he was coming from, his authentically passionate conviction on his topic was almost wasted. Again, this is probably a good example of why the format is so important, because Larry’s topics of interest are so big, they require time to develop the context in order for his points to be truly relatable. The irony is that most people in this space are probably highly pre-disposed to agreeing with much of what he has to say; but the problem is that, if you didn’t come in the room knowing that already, you didn’t get enough perspective from the discussion to be able to be on the same wave-length as Larry when he started getting passionate about some of his points. In the end, Larry was preaching to a very small choir of people who came into the room already knowing that they agreed with him, instead of showing the majority of the audience that what he was saying does, in fact, relate to them and show them why they should (or do) care about it. Again, in another format this may have worked better, but as part of a larger panel, he did not have the opportunity to flesh this out.

Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts

Connection with the Audience: A

Details:Matt Cutts had an interesting challenge at PubCon South: he was announcing a new technology release from his team, and had to make a room full of non-technical people understand why they should care and why it was actually relevant to them. Not an easy task, but one which was largely successful. So Matt ends up with major props for connecting with his audience. And even after he moved on to other topics, both in terms of the things he chose to speak about and the ways in which he answered questions, were all very deliberately centered around an audience point of view. He never once talked over their heads (which would have been easy to do inadvertantly), and yet he never “dumbed down” his answers so much that he sounded patronizing. It was a very effective line to walk, and one that allowed him to connect to both technical and non-technical members of the audience at the same time.

Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh

Connection with the Audience: A

Details:Tony Hsieh did a great job connecting with his audience because his theme is so universal: everyone wants to feel valued and everyone wants to be happy. His entire talk was about building an organization and developing a culture where individuals feel like they are contributing value and providing tactical, relatable examples of how Zappos does this, and what makes their approach different from the way other organizations do this. Combined with his very authentic (nervous) style, Tony’s message very strongly resonates with the audience, because it is about fixing something that is fundamentally broken in so many companies — yet it’s something that is a universal human craving.

The clearest lesson to me when it came to connecting with an audience was about the difference between a strategic discussion and a tactical one. Connecting with an audience is about making what you have to say truly relevant to them, and in most cases this needs concrete, personal examples. While some of us do enjoy the higher level theory and philosophy, that isn’t the way to get your message to resonate with the majority of an audience. If you want people to walk out of the room feeling inspired, they have to feel empowered. Abstract theory rarely does that.

The next biggest lesson was about a speaker’s energy level. It is contegeous. This is why Charlene Li sounding like a consultant presenting a PowerPoint to a group of investors could never compare to Gary Vaynerchuk bounding off the stage to give a woman in an audience a hug that lifted her off her feet. And while one could argue that it is an apples-to-oranges comparison (and I wouldn’t disagree), in the end it doesn’t matter, because the bottom line is that, as a speaker, your goal should always be to leave an audience feeling like the time they gave you was a worthwhile investment on their part. At SXSW Gary and Charlene spoke in the same room to about the same size audience. When Charlene’s event was over, people shuffled out of the room and meandered down the halls to their next destination. Conversely, when Gary’s event was over, the energy level of the audience was sky-high. People flew out of the room, eager to get to their next event, and so energized that they were ready to take on the world. The difference was staggering and impossible to miss.

All in all, watching the variety of speakers on the array of topics I saw was an intersting evaluation of quality. Obviously some were better than others. Some tried to rely strictly on content; while others relied exclusively on personal style. I think that both of those are a mistake and undermined the end result, because you need both to at least some degree in order to leave an audience with a great experience.

Ultimately, like all other talents, public speaking comes very naturally to some people, while other people really have to work at it in order to be good. So while I would never say it’s something that ‘anyone can do with enough practice,’ I will say that you don’t have to be a natural in order to find a way to become good at it with time and effort — assuming you are properly motivated.

I’d be interested to hear what you think. Disagree with my assessment of these speakers strengths and weaknesses? Think I missed an important quality that makes a difference? Please leave me a comment and let me know.

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