The Best Public Speakers Put the Audience First
Dec. 9, 2022 Harvard Business Review
Several years ago, I traveled from New York to Geneva, Switzerland to be the closing keynote speaker for the World Communication Forum. I was excited to have the opportunity to speak with global leaders about how nonnative English speakers can present their ideas — and themselves — with greater clarity and confidence. For my allotted 45-minute time slot, I prepared high-quality research, relatable examples, actionable takeaways from my book on the topic, and ample opportunities for audience engagement.
But then, the conference ran late. Every single presentation and panel prior to mine exceeded its time limit. By the time my closing speaking slot arrived, I had only eight minutes to deliver my 45-minute presentation — a presentation I had flown across the Atlantic Ocean to give.
Here’s what I wanted to do: cry, insist on my full time, and then hop on the next plane back to New York.
Here’s what I did instead: managed my emotions, empathized with the audience’s wants and needs, and delivered an eight-minute presentation that gave them practical tips and tools that they could use immediately.
Here’s how it went: great. Participants shared their appreciation for my adaptability, focus, and my good humor, as well as their gratitude that I didn’t make them late for dinner.
In the moment, I chose servant leadership over self-interest.
The term servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, and refers to a leader who “shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” This is in contrast to the traditional leadership model which focuses on the power of one at the “top of the pyramid.”
As public speakers, we can often feel like we’re at the top of the pyramid because we’re at the front of the room. It can be tempting to interpret a presentation as an opportunity to showcase what we know rather than address what the audience wants and needs to know. But that makes it about us, not about them. In contrast, speakers as servant leaders demonstrate self-awareness, empathy, and foresight. Here’s how you can do the same.
What makes a servant leader?
As soon as I realized that I was going to have to cut almost 80% of the presentation I had been working on for months, I felt myself get flooded with both anger and anxiety. I was angry that other speakers went over their allotted time. I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to adapt my remarks in time to make them both concise and compelling.
And I also realized that, as a visibly expressive person, I could pass that anger and anxiety on to the audience. Emotions are contagious, and leaders must recognize that their feelings can “infect” others, for better or for worse. Furthermore, the more expressive someone is, the more likely others are to notice that expression, and mimic it.
Unless I wanted an angry and anxious audience, I had to manage my emotions before taking the stage. Chances are, you’ve experienced anxiety (among a host of other emotions) before making a presentation. Leverage that self-awareness to make sure you’re not infecting your audience. One strategy is to “name it to tame it.” Originally developed by Dr. Daniel Siegel, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, this technique involves noticing and naming how you’re feeling as it’s happening. Identifying your emotions can quickly reduce the stress and anxiety in the brain and the body that that emotion is causing.
You can also ask yourself, “WTF?” (“What the func?”). According to Dr. Susan David, co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, our emotions serve a function. They’re trying to get our attention, and to remind us of the needs and values that we hold as important to us. When you present, ask yourself what functions those emotions serve. Maybe you feel anxious because you care deeply about accuracy, and you don’t want to get the facts wrong. Perhaps you feel worried because you’re motivated by harmony, and you’re about to say something that could rock the boat.
And, if you’re like most people, you feel anxious speaking in front of people in general because you value excellence (“What if I don’t do a great job?”) or acceptance (“What if they don’t like my ideas?”). Harness your drive towards excellence to practice delivering your presentation aloud to a colleague, and use their feedback to improve it. If you’re concerned about acceptance, practice with a colleague who will play devil’s advocate with you. By practicing how you manage pushback and objections, you’ll gain additional insight into your audience’s concerns, and be better prepared to address them in the moment.
Whatever your hard feelings are, know that they’re pointing you towards something you value — and towards something you can use to become a more audience-centered presenter.
If you were to ask me what the most common mistake is that presenters make, I wouldn’t say using filler words or having a boring PowerPoint or not being able to answer tough questions.
I would say that it’s leading with the ideas that they want to talk about rather than being empathetic towards the audience’s hopes and fears.
Presenting with a servant leadership approach flips this model. Rather than prioritizing your own agenda, you put the agenda of the audience ahead of yours. You seek first to understand rather than to be understood. You show curiosity, concern, and compassion for others, even if you have a different experience.
In Geneva, I wanted all 45 minutes of the stage time I was promised. But I knew that fighting for air time would be in service of me, and not in service of the needs of my fidgety, hungry listeners.
So, I prioritized their need to get the most applicable information from my presentation over my desire to tell interesting stories. I told them that I recognized that I was all that was standing between them and dinner, and that I wouldn’t make them late. And I mentioned that I knew that they had been sitting for many hours, and invited them to stand up, walk around, stretch, or do whatever they needed to do while I spoke.
Here’s an exercise you can do to help you develop the empathy you’ll need to present from a servant leadership perspective: Picture a bed — any bed. Let that bed inspire you to ask these servant leadership questions about your audience.
- What gets them out of bed in the morning? In other words, what are they excited about and motivated by? Is it growth? Opportunity? Collaboration? Innovation? That’s one clue to what you should prioritize in your presentation. If this is an internal presentation, you will likely know this because whomever you’re presenting to will have shared these goals in previous meetings, conversations, or emails. For an external audience, you can ask the person convening the meeting, or reach out to a few attendees to ask them by email or via a quick phone call.
- What keeps them up at night? What are they worried about? Is it time? Money? Quality? Headcount? Visibility? Viability? Reputation? Whatever it is, that’s your second clue to what you should prioritize in your presentation. Use the same strategies from above to find the answers to this question, too.
Once you know what’s in the heads and hearts of your audience, design your presentation to address those topics first and foremost. You’ll have your audience’s attention and buy-in because you’ve demonstrated empathy over self-concern.
Servant-leaders leverage their experience and intuition to draw lessons from past experiences, to understand the realities of today, and to reasonably predict the consequences of a decision for the future.
Good presenters need to be able to do the same.
As someone who has been a professional speaker and speaking coach for three decades, I knew from past experiences that trying to maintain an audience’s attention, interest, and goodwill beyond the time they were expecting to stay was a losing battle. I also knew this from my experience as an audience member myself — I regularly felt tense and frustrated when I was being asked to pay attention beyond the allotted time.
The reality of that day was that several other speakers who preceded me had exceeded their time. It was now eight minutes before dinner time after a long day. Another reality was that I had 45 minutes of content, but I no longer has 45 minutes to deliver it. I could reasonably predict that if I decided to take more time than we had left, the audience would no longer pay attention. I could also anticipate that if I tried to rush through my content, the audience would feel overwhelmed and confused — and it would undermine my credibility as a speaker. My decision was to give the audience the most important content they needed to know and to get the conference back on track.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but my foresight (and hindsight) informed what I needed to do to be of service.
Consider your audience.
As you think about presenting to your audience, ask yourself these questions:
What do I know about their understanding of this topic?
(And if you don’t know, ask someone who does.) If your audience has minimal understanding of your topic, include some foundational education about the topic early in the presentation. Make sure to minimize jargon, in-speak, acronyms, and technical terms that can confuse your listeners. (Remember, it’s not about demonstrating what you understand — it’s about making sure they understand.) If your audience is already educated about and experienced with your topic, then start where they are.
What if you have an audience with mixed knowledge? A presentation for multiple audiences can become confusing, so consider who your primary audience is and gear your presentation towards them. And yet, you still want to be inclusive. Try acknowledging this aloud to the group by saying, “I understand that some of you are new to the field, many of you have been working in the field for a few years, and some of you have decades of experience. I’ll start by defining some basic terms and then we’re going to get into the details they understand. For those of you who are experts, I hope you’ll add your valuable experience and perspectives to the conversation today. (I do this regularly when I am speaking to a group of experts in my own field, and they appreciate being acknowledged and included.)