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A Great Speech: Surprise Your Audience

The thousand of business owners seated in the hotel ballroom were lit up, but not by the speaker onstage. Instead, it was the glow of cellphones reflecting off their faces as they checked email and texted. You could tell this was the last day of a three-day national conference. Everyone was tired. In this case, the “big sendoff” was six speakers presenting back to back on a Saturday afternoon. The best (or worst) part: I was speaking dead last.

In a previous column I shared my steps to becoming a persuasive speaker. What I didn’t reveal was how to navigate the tricky “tired audience” situation I was about to face. For this scenario, I had to reach deep into my bag of speaking experiences to pull out my No. 1 speaking secret….

But first, I recognized what not to do. Don’t fall for the trap of opening with a funny story or YouTube video. Nope. A tired audience needs something different. Folks need to be surprised.

Sixteen years and 2,000 presentations ago, I would not have known to surprise an audience of seasoned executives. Back then, it took everything I could muster to remember my key points, nail my jokes and not say “uh” 20 times. That’s still a good starting point, but today’s audiences are more sophisticated, skeptical and informed. They also have a world full of distractions on their mobile phones. This means you’ve got to not just up your game, but change how you play.

When the emcee introduced me, I did exactly what every speech coach tells you NOT to do. I jumped off the front of the stage. I stepped over the speakers, past the lights, tiptoed around the power cords and dodged the fake flowers. And I kept going. The camera crew couldn’t keep up. The A/V guys instantly hit the house lights. The stage washed out behind me. And at that moment everyone in the audience was shocked and looking squarely at me. Talk about an intro!

I gave my presentation in the middle of the audience. The front row had to turn around. The previously texting middle rows were now responding to rapid-fire questions from me. The “old-timers” in the back row uncrossed their arms to raise their hands. People started streaming into the room to find out what was going on. I’m sure they were thinking: What is this guy going to do next?! Perfect.

Forty-five minutes later, I got the first standing ovation at the conference—and in the worst time slot.

To me, a great presentation is a three-way conversation: 1) you connecting with the audience, 2) the audience connecting with you, and 3) the audience connecting with each other. You could even add 4) the audience connecting with non-attendees via social media.

By doing everything I was not supposed to do, I snagged everyone’s attention and re-energized the room. To me, that’s the No. 1 secret to rocking a tired audience: Be courageously unexpected.

Now I’m sure you’ve heard, maybe even been taught, to stay on message, stick to your slides and avoid engaging resistant audience members. But in life, those approaches rarely get attention, let alone an emotional reaction. Speaking is no different. Go with your gut and surprise the audience. You’ll surprise yourself. And I guarantee you’ll surprise the planning committee that will want you back the next year. See you at the conference—and in the audience!

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