Starting to Talk – Presenting to an Audience
When you’re giving a talk at a conference or meeting, what are you actually trying to do? Teach? Just talk about your subject? Perform?
In fact, you will find yourself doing all of these things, and you can make the talk have maximum impact by being aware of this. But at the beginning, a talk should be a performance.
Many speakers start off in quite a laid-back manner, shuffling papers, exchanging pleasantries, etc. In the vast majority of cases though, this is a poor way to start – a statement which may seem counter-intuitive to some.
Of course, occasionally there are circumstances where such an approach is appropriate, where it promotes a feeling of bonhomie and so on, but as far as professional conferences and meetings are concerned, these circumstances are rare. If you exchange pleasantries for instance, the people you don’t exchange pleasantries with, will often feel left out.
At the beginning of your presentation, it really is best to have some razzmatazz to wake people up. Let your audience know that they’re in for an experience, rather than just a coffee room chat (which they can have anytime). Let them know that they’ll be getting their money’s worth, and that all the hassle involved in getting to the event etc, was not wasted.
There are a number of ways of getting a talk off to a flying start. One is, an impressive audio-visual: a film, a slide show with music (which is far easier to construct of course), an animation. But this does require the use of time and resources which you may not feel are justified.
Another approach is a ‘theatrical’ kind of activity, intended to elicit a reaction from the audience.
For example, you could try making a statement which, in your field of expertise, is very contentious. You don’t have to agree with this statement: you can make it, wait for the reaction (indeed ask for reactions) and then say why you don’t agree with it.
Alternatively, and more traditionally, tell an anecdote. Provided it is clearly relevant, not too long, and includes some humour or other emotive element, it’s likely to do the trick.
But don’t just say it, perform it. Practice it beforehand. Perhaps include some actions, not full scale mime, but minimal indicative actions which enhance the story: if someone is ‘stirring it’, then stir!
A word here about body language. There is a tendency when facing a large audience, particularly one spread out in an auditorium, to move about, to try to get eye contact with different audience members, to look at one and then the other.
Again, a statement which does seem counter-intuitive (but is based on theatrical theory) – don’t do this. STAY STILL. Specifically including one audience member will exclude others, and moving about all the time, can look, well, a bit silly.
Stay still, your stillness will attract the eyes of the audience (and that’s the right way round). Face front, and when you do move, make it count. Make clear expressive gestures, and acknowledge audience participation with interest.
If you’re the kind of person (as I am) who doesn’t know what to do with your hands when you’re talking, then the easiest option is just to hold something, a pointer, clipboard, or similar accoutrement.
And if something technical goes wrong, and it’s significantly affecting the start of your presentation, stop; get it sorted out early with the organiser (who should have a representative to hand). It is best not to try to fluff through regardless. If you do, that technical problem will in all likelihood become the only thing your audience will remember about your talk.
To sum up, yes – starting a talk is a bit of a performance, in all senses of that phrase. But it’s a performance which it is possible for you, the speaker, to enjoy; and if you enjoy it, then almost always, so will your audience.