Over the years of coaching and conducting clinics on presentation skills, I’ve tried to calm some of my clients’ worst fears about public speaking by reassuring them their audiences are dependably tolerant and polite souls.
Don’t worry, I say, your audience won’t walk out on you.
I’m beginning to think I’ve been giving the wrong advice.
Could it be bad presentations are perpetuated because we audiences are so polite?
Is our genteel practice of sitting through to the bitter end ultimately giving permission to those who would fritter away our time with content that is pointless, PowerPoint slides that are spectacularly meaningless, stagecraft that is graceless?
What if we, as the audience, did indeed walk out?
Not in a huff, mind you. Just quietly rose from our seats and stepped through the door.
What if we started to make clear that we no longer would tolerate speakers who were blatantly unprepared, unrehearsed or unable to make a point?
I’m not talking about the performance of the painfully shy junior staffer who must deliver a report at the monthly managers’ meeting, or the reticent parent who’s been dragooned to summarize the committee’s work on the neighborhood school festival. For them at these frightful moments, we can only reply with tender mercy.
I’m talking about the folks who ought to know better, who ought to do better, when stepping in front of an audience.
The experts, the elected officials, and business leaders who, by virtue of their position, know they are going to be asked to speak before a meeting of Rotarians or Kiwanians or Soroptomists, or to colleagues at a conference or citizens attending a town hall.
The speakers who ask to be invited to make their case to a group, then consider their work done once the invitation arrives.
The speakers who blow off suggestions of help by declaring “I know this stuff; I talk about it all the time. Put up a few Excel graphs and bullet lists, and it’s a done deal.”
The speakers who seemingly work harder positioning their reputations than preparing their presentations.
So, what would the world be like if audiences gave themselves permission to slip away when threatened by a dreadful presentation?
Well, maybe, just maybe, some folks would begin to invest a little more time and thought into crafting a good presentation, rather than waiting until the last moment and then winging it.
Perhaps speakers would work smarter to prepare themselves (like learning how to use their digital projector, for instance), rather than prey on the gracious indulgence of the audience.
Perhaps speakers would make the effort to read through their remarks (at least once) in advance, solicit the honest critique of a colleague, even seek out a coach to polish some basic delivery skills… do something to protect the interests of the audience.
Perhaps we, as the audience, would get better value for the time we invest attending the presentation.
So, okay, rather than offering gentle reassurances, maybe I should start saying this instead to folks concerned about speaking in public:
“Your audience won’t walk out on you IF you’ve done your best to prepare and can demonstrate your readiness to present…
“IF you’ve structured a cohesive, rational narrative of your points and conclusions…
“IF you use only those graphics that help you clarify your point rather than lard it down with extraneous visual clutter and slideware whizbangs…
“IF you put your audience’s needs first over your own…
“IF you are authentic in the delivery of your message rather than detached and passionless…
“And IF your message is clear, succinct, memorable and not vague, meandering or weak.
“This isn’t about the audience agreeing with what you say. That’s a function of your persuasiveness in the case you make. It is about the audience sticking around long enough to hear you say it, and that’s a privilege you must earn by respecting their investment of time and attention.
“Otherwise, people will — and should — walk out.
“It’s up to you.”
So, what do you think? Would it make a difference?